WASHINGTON — More than 1 million Americans are bracing for a harrowing, post-Christmas jolt as extended federal unemployment benefits come to a sudden halt this weekend, with potentially significant implications for the recovering U.S. economy. A tense political battle likely looms when Congress reconvenes in the new, midterm election year.
Nudging Congress along, a vacationing President Barack Obama called two senators proposing an extension to offer his support. From Hawaii, Obama pledged Friday to push Congress to move quickly next year to address the “urgent economic priority,” the White House said.
For families dependent on cash assistance, the end of the federal government’s “emergency unemployment compensation” will mean some difficult belt-tightening as enrollees lose their average monthly stipend of $1,166.
Jobless rates could drop, but analysts said the economy may suffer with less money for consumers to spend on everything from clothes to cars. Having let the “emergency” program expire as part of a budget deal, it’s unclear if Congress has the appetite to start it anew.
An estimated 1.3 million people will be cut off when the federally funded unemployment payments end today.
Started under President George W. Bush, the benefits were designed as a cushion for the millions of U.S. citizens who lost their jobs in a recession and failed to find new ones while receiving state jobless benefits, which in most states expire after six months. Another 1.9 million people across the country are expected to exhaust their state benefits before the end of June.
But Obama has no quick fix. He hailed this month’s two-year budget agreement as a breakthrough of bipartisan cooperation while his administration works with Democratic allies in the House and Senate to revive an extension of jobless benefits for those unemployed more than six months.
The Obama administration said those payments have kept 11.4 million people out of poverty and benefited almost 17 million children. The cost of them since 2008 has totaled $225 billion.
House Speaker John Boehner spoke with Obama about an extension earlier this month. Boehner said his caucus would consider the possibility “as long as it’s paid for and as long as there are other efforts that will help get our economy moving once again.”
He said the White House has yet to introduce a plan that meets his standards.