WASHINGTON – Newly empowered Republicans want spending cuts of $5 billion to $6 billion a month as a condition for extending emergency unemployment benefits that are scheduled to expire next month for millions of Americans.
Up to 2 million people could lose the benefits — which average $310 a week nationwide — during the holiday season if the still Democratic-controlled Congress doesn't act in the postelection lame-duck session. The expiration could affect as many as 5 million by the end of February.
With new employment figures Friday showing 14 million Americans still out of work last month and an unemployment rate stuck at 9.6 percent, President Barack Obama renewed his call for another extension "to help those hardest hit by the downturn while generating more demand in the economy."
But there's no way that Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell and other GOP senators would support an extension unless they're accompanied by equivalent spending cuts, McConnell spokesman Don Stewart said.
Every recession since 1950 has featured an extended federal benefits program financed with deficit dollars. That's a precedent Democrats refused to break when battling with Republicans for months earlier this year to extend the program through Nov. 30.
Two Maine Republicans, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, broke with their party this summer to give Democrats the needed 60 votes to pass the most recent of several extensions, which adds more than $30 billion to the national debt.
But newly elected Republican Mark Kirk of Illinois will be taking over Obama's old Senate seat sometime during the lame-duck session, giving McConnell one more vote to block a debt-financed extension.
The additional jobless benefits programs began in 2008 under President George W. Bush but were made more generous under last year's economic recovery act. Jobless people are now eligible for up to 99 weeks of benefits in most states. The first 26 weeks of benefits are paid for by states. About 3.7 million are drawing them now.
Democrats argue that the extended benefits should be paid for with deficit spending because it injects money into the economy. Jobless people immediately spend the cash, they explain. But Republicans note that the government had to borrow 37 cents of every dollar it spent last year, and it's time to draw the line
"Our friends on the other side simply refuse to pass a bill that does not add to the debt," McConnell said in a debate on the last extension.
The topic is sure to come up at a Nov. 18 meeting among Obama and leaders of both parties in Congress — their first since the midterm elections in which Republicans won at least 60 seats and a majority in the House. They also grabbed six seats from Democrats in the Senate.
The lame-duck session that convenes Nov. 15 and, in all likelihood, again after Thanksgiving already has an overflowing plate of business. Most if not all legislation will have to be done on a consensus basis — at least in the Senate, where a single senator can gum up the works for days.
Aides to Senate conservatives such as Jim DeMint, R-S.C., say conservatives are unlikely to block an extension of the benefits — so long as they're paid for.
Finding cuts, however, promises to be exceptionally difficult. In the past, Republicans have targeted unspent money from Obama's $814 billion stimulus bill — an idea that's likely to find resistance with Obama and Democrats.
Congressional aides say virtually no behind-the-scenes work has been undertaken to identify spending cuts that both sides could agree on. And many Democrats are still reject the idea that a benefits extension should be paid for with spending cuts.
"I'm not sure that's where our caucus is right now," said Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
(This version CORRECTS in paragraph 2 that the jobless benefits average $310 weekly.)