Politics

Obama Eyes Economic Triage for Unemployed

After another grim jobless report, President Obama is turning his attention to extending a lifeline to the unemployed and making the case that his health care plan would create jobs by making small business startups more affordable. 

The Obama administration has begun talks with congressional Democratic leaders on moves to extend health insurance subsidies, the $8,000 first-time home buyer tax credit and jobless benefits, congressional and administration officials told FOX News late Friday.

Meanwhile, in his weekly radio and Internet video address Saturday, the president linked one of his biggest challenges -- joblessness -- with passage of far-reaching changes to the nation's health care system.

The economic moves were recently pulled together by White House economic advisers as an act of economic triage aimed at millions of chronically unemployed Americans. The White House is loathe to call this emerging package a second economic stimulus.

Even so, President Obama tipped his hand that something was coming in Friday remarks on the economy in the Rose Garden.

"I'm working closely with my economic advisors to explore any and all additional options and measures that we might take to promote job creation," Obama said after the Labor Department reported that 263,000 Americans lost jobs in September and the unemployment rate rose to 9.8 percent.

Embedded in those numbers was this sobering statistic. The number of Americans unemployed for 27 weeks increased by 450,000 and now totals 5.4 million.

In the weekly Republican address, Rep. Candice Miller of Michigan blamed the continued job losses on Democratic policies and said Obama's health proposals won't help.

Miller said the Obama-backed $787 billion economic stimulus package fell far short of its goals.

And she criticized a House-passed energy bill that would set limits and costs on greenhouse gas emissions. The plan, which the Senate has not taken up, "would increase electricity bills, raise gasoline prices and ship more American jobs overseas," Miller said.

She called for deeper tax cuts for small businesses "to put our economy back on track."

As for health care, Miller said, "Washington Democrats intend to fund their government-run health care plan with cuts to Medicare benefits" and with new taxes on businesses.

The White House may soon ask Congress to extend three parts of the original $787 billion stimulus law signed in mid-February.

* Extend the current $8,000 first-time home buyer tax credit beyond its scheduled Nov. 30 expiration date.

* Extend the current 65 percent subsidy through the COBRA program so jobless Americans can purchase health insurance for only 35 percent of the premium. After that, the government reimburses the provider for the remaining unpaid amount through a tax credit. The program, which provides nine months of this subsidized insurance coverage, is also due to expire on Dec. 31.

* Extend the full 79-week unemployment insurance package now available through the stimulus to laid off workers. The stimulus provided extended jobless benefits in high-unemployment states and tacked on a $25-per week stipend. Eligibility for extended benefits and the stipend expires on Dec. 31.

Congressional Democrats said talks on moving this type of legislation are "preliminary." But they are gaining velocity as the White House tries to cope with persistent unemployment and the political anxiety it has begun to generate among Democrats preparing to run for re-election in 2010.

Two White House officials adamantly denied a second stimulus is coming. But a senior administration official confirmed moves are afoot to extend three stimulus-created programs targeted at softening the blow of unemployment and boosting home sales.

"There's no big new package under consideration," the official said. "But there are moves to extend things that are starting to run out."

On Saturday, Obama said the passage of his health care proposals would create new jobs by making small business startups more affordable.

If aspiring entrepreneurs believe they can stay insured while switching jobs, Obama said, they will start new businesses and hire workers.

He said he has met people "who've got a good idea and the expertise and determination to build it into a thriving business. But many can't take that leap because they can't afford to lose the health insurance they have at their current job."

Small businesses create many of the nation's jobs, the president said, and some have the potential to become big companies.

Obama praised the Senate Finance Committee for crafting a health care bill that includes many of his priorities. Small businesses could buy health insurance through an exchange, he said, "where they can compare the price, quality and services of a wide variety of plans."

The government would subsidize health insurance for many businesses and individuals, the president said.

Obama acknowledged that a health care bill is far from final passage in the Democratic-controlled Congress.

The Senate Finance bill will be merged with another version and sent to the Senate floor, where scores of amendments might be offered and Republicans could mount a filibuster.

FOX News' Major Garrett and The Associated Press contributed to this report.