Can Obama Compel the GOP to Extend Unemployment Benefits?

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President Barack Obama lined up his sights, prepared the political calculus, and fired a shell at the GOP on Tuesday night. In his State of the Union address — which was packed with pointed criticism of Congress — President Obama explicitly called on the legislature to “restore the unemployment insurance you just let expire for 1.6 million people.”

The president was referring to the federally funded emergency unemployment insurance extensions passed in the wake of the financial crisis. Headline unemployment in the U.S. peaked in severity at 10 percent two years after the recession technically ended in 2011 and only really began to moderate in 2013. Benefits were extended for those hardest hit by the crisis and subsequent recession, with programs increasing the number of weeks for which an unemployed person could claim benefits from around 26 to as much as 73. An additional extended benefits program can add between 13 and 20 weeks of insurance — depending on the state-level situation — and costs are split between the state and the federal governments.

As President Obama mentioned, extended benefits expired at the end of December in the midst of partisan disagreement over their efficacy. Generally speaking, liberal Democrats want to extend federal funding for the benefits to the tune of about $25 billion, while conservatives don’t believe extending the program is worth the cost. Democrats appear to be pushing for a three-month extension of the program that would be funded by extending pension-smoothing provisions of the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act.

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