Stan Osnowitz has been out of work since his last job as an electrician ended in July. The 67-year-old from Baltimore says he still wakes up around 4 a.m. every day to look for work, while relying on state unemployment benefits that are scheduled to run out in January.
"I hate being unemployed. It's a waste of my time, my abilities," Osnowitz told the House Democratic Steering Committee on Thursday, which invited a handful of long-term unemployed Americans to talk about unemployment benefits. "If Congress lets the unemployment insurance shut down, I won't even be able to put gas in my car to look for a job."
After his state unemployment benefits run out, Osnowitz will join 1.3 million people who will no longer receive federal emergency unemployment insurance on Dec. 28, unless Congress extends the program.
But as of this week, the benefit doesn't appear to be making its way into a budget deal. That could change, of course; the budget conference, which hasn't reached a deal yet, has a Dec. 13 deadline. And a week is a long time on the Hill.
A House Republican staffer with knowledge of the budget talks said he would be "very surprised" if the extension was included in a final budget deal, given widespread opposition among the GOP — although he couldn't rule anything out.
"If the president has a plan for extending unemployment benefits, I'd surely entertain taking a look at it," House Speaker John Boehner told reporters Thursday. "But I would argue that the president's real focus ought to be creating a better environment for our economy and creating more jobs for the American people. That's where the focus is, not more government programs."
Asked whether he thinks it should be extended for additional weeks, Boehner responded: "I'm not the expert. Talk to the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee."
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said extending the program would "lead to a greater deficit," and he cited a Congressional Budget Office report to argue that some who are eligible for the benefit would reduce the intensity of their job searches and remain unemployed longer. The report estimated modest negative effects.
Extending the program has become a major priority for Democrats. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer said his caucus would oppose the House adjourning on Dec. 13 if it hasn't been passed. Democrats point to a report released Thursday by the president's Council of Economic Advisers showing another 3.6 million stand to lose the insurance by the end of 2014. The CBO also estimated that extending the current program for another year will add 200,000 jobs and 0.2 percent to the gross domestic product, as well as increase the deficit by $25 billion over 10 years.
"We are making a very clear statement that we cannot, cannot support a budget agreement that does not include unemployment insurance, in the budget or as a sidebar to move it all along," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said Thursday morning. By the afternoon, she appeared to walk that strategy back a bit, saying that she hopes it can be part of a budget deal but that it doesn't have to be: "It could be its own vehicle as we go forward," she said. "But I still do want to see an unemployment bill."
Republican House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan is negotiating the budget deal with his Democratic Senate counterpart, Patty Murray. According to Murray spokesman Eli Zupnick, the senator "would like to extend [unemployment insurance] in the budget conference, has made it clear that she will be pushing for it, and it remains an open item in the discussions."
In October, the unemployment rate was 7.3 percent, and about 4.1 million Americans were classified as long-term unemployed — meaning for 27 weeks or more, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The federal emergency benefit kicks in once state benefits are exhausted, which is 26 weeks in most places.
House Republicans are opposed to extending the benefit. House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., has said he hopes it expires. Republicans have argued that it increases the deficit and keeps people from looking for jobs. Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., a member of the budget conference committee, told National Journal Daily that "my view is still it's very unlikely to garner the votes to pass."
"That's a pretty big item to figure out how to fund," Cole later said. "The president would need to submit a plan and sort of tell us how he envisions paying for it. This stuff which at some point was supposed to end, ... at some point it has to stop; if there's a real economic recovery, you don't need unemployment [insurance] at this level for this extended period of time."
House Ways and Means ranking member Sander Levin, D-Mich., told National Journal Daily that the benefit, which first passed in 2008, has traditionally been extended as an emergency measure without a pay-for. Congress last extended it as part of the fiscal-cliff deal.
Levin said his side has tried to engage Republicans. "At this point, they don't have a clear position. I take what the speaker said today as encouraging."
President Obama has called on Congress to extend the benefit, but the administration is not signaling the issue as a make-or-break on a final budget deal. White House press secretary Jay Carney declined to say whether Obama would sign a budget deal without the extension. "What I can't do is negotiate budget compromises from here," he told reporters Thursday. "The president strongly supports the extension of unemployment insurance benefits."