RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The U.S. Senate gets back to work tomorrow, and the first legislation up for a vote will be a three-month extension of long-term unemployment benefits. In his weekly radio address yesterday, President Obama urged Republicans to pass the bill.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Republicans should make it their New Year's resolution to do the right thing and restore this vital economic security for their constituents right now.
MARTIN: The Senate unemployment measure is bipartisan but it's not clear it has enough votes to beat a GOP filibuster. As NPR's David Welna reports, Democrats are banging the drum on the issue as a midterm election year kicks off.
DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: On Friday afternoon, the Obama administration teed up tomorrow's Senate procedural vote on an unemployment benefits extension cosponsored by Rhode Island Jack Reed and Nevada Republican Dean Heller. In a conference call with reporters organized by the White House, Labor Secretary Tom Perez pointed out that when former President Bush first signed long-term unemployment benefits in 2008, the average unemployed worker went jobless for 17 weeks. The current out-of-work average, he said, is 36 weeks - 10 weeks longer than state unemployment benefits last.
SECRETARY TOM PEREZ: It would be unprecedented, given the current rate of long-term unemployment, for Congress to fail to act to extend these benefits. And that is why we are so heartened by the bipartisan bill that Senators Heller and Reed have introduced.
WELNA: And Betsy Stevenson of the president's Council on Economic Advisers warned that failure to extend benefits could mean the loss of another quarter million jobs this year, precisely when the overall economy is starting to pick up steam.
BETSY STEVENSON: It seems like a silly time for Congress to fail to do something that's both essential for the people who need it and helpful for our economy.
WELNA: Prospects for reviving the jobless benefits are uncertain at best in the Democratic-led Senate. But the legislation faces even bigger hurdles in the GOP-controlled House. Before he left Washington three weeks ago, House Speaker John Boehner was asked whether he'd let a jobless benefits bill come to the floor. Boehner did not say no. After all, extending those benefits enjoys wide public support, even among Republicans. But he did attach some significant strings.
REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER: When the White House finally called me last Friday about extending unemployment benefits, I said that we would clearly consider it, as long as it's paid for and as long as there are other efforts that'll help get our economy moving once again.
WELNA: There are no offsets in the Senate bill to pay for the $6.2 billion cost of the three-month extension, and House Democrats say they would not vote for any GOP attempt to pay for the bill by tapping other workers' benefits. Michigan House Democrat Sandy Levin is counting on Republicans ultimately caving to popular pressure.
REPRESENTATIVE SANDY LEVIN: Once it's debated and the stories of people become more and more known, I think that's going to move the mountain here.
WELNA: President Obama kicks off that effort with a White House on Tuesday rally featuring long-term unemployed workers. David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.
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