By ANDREW TAYLOR
WASHINGTON (AP) - Republicans controlling the House oppose a drive by Democrats to renew jobless benefits averaging less than $300 a week nationwide for the long-term unemployed, a senior GOP lawmaker said Tuesday.
"I don't see much appetite on our side for continuing this extension of benefits," said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla. "I just don't."
Benefits for 1.3 million long-term unemployed people expire just three days after Christmas. Lawmakers say another 1.9 million people would miss out on the benefits in the first six months of next year.
Democrats are pressing for legislation continuing a program in place since 2008 that gives federally paid benefits to jobless people after their 26 weeks of state benefits run out. Federal benefits have typically been offered during periods of high unemployment, though fewer weeks of extended jobless benefits are available than in previous years. The unemployment rate is averaging 7.3 percent nationwide.
"These have been extraordinary extensions, and the Republican position all along has been 'we need to go back to normal here at some point,'" Cole said.
The additional weeks of benefits have been extended each year since 2009, sometimes after bitter battles over whether they should be "paid for" with spending cuts elsewhere in the budget. They have usually been part of larger packages extending tax cuts, which has made it easier for Republicans to support. That's not the case now, however, because most Bush-era tax cuts were permanently extended in January.
Democrats are pressing to make the jobless aid part of Congress' year-end agenda and hope to include it in a budget pact that House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., are trying to assemble.
Murray returned to the Capitol Tuesday - even as the Senate remained on recess - in hopes of sealing an agreement with Ryan as early as the end of this week. Ryan and Murray have declined to comment publicly on their efforts, but spokesmen said a deal to ease automatic spending cuts known as sequestration isn't guaranteed.
The Congressional Budget Office said Tuesday that the Democratic legislation to extend federal benefits to people who have exhausted their state benefits would cost $25 billion but stimulate the economy by 0.2 percent next year and create 200,000 jobs.
Long-term unemployment aid once added up to 73 weeks in federal benefits to the 26 weeks of state benefits for a maximum of 99 weeks. Now, 73 weeks is the maximum allowed from both sources combined, with 54 weeks being the nationwide average.
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California announced a Thursday hearing in which unemployed people will testify about the financial cliff they face when benefits are cut off on Dec. 28.