By Vicki Needham
Congress shouldn't adjourn for the year until it approves an extension of unemployment benefits, Democrats said on Wednesday.
During a rally with workers on Capitol Hill, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, guaranteed that there would be "no Christmas for Congress unless an extension of unemployment benefits is passed."
House Ways and Means ranking member Sandy Levin (D-Mich.) said Democrats must pass the extension in early December, and declared the issue off the table for "horse trading."
"One way or another, it has to happen," Levin told The Hill. "We need to get this done. Everybody needs to step up to the plate."
Democrats in both chambers are ramping up their campaign to pass a bill that would extend the program for one year before it expires on Dec. 31.
The biggest obstacle to a deal is finding an offset to cover the cost of the unemployment benefits. When they were last extended in December 2010, they were included in a larger package that also extended all of the Bush tax rates for two years. That legislation was not offset with other spending cuts.
While Levin emphasized that the extension hasn't ever been paid for in the past, he said lawmakers need to “get down to business” and “get it done one way or the other."
Levin said he hoped to begin discussions with Republicans, including House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (D-Mich.), as early as Thursday to build bipartisan support for an unemployment measure.
President Obama, who was in Pennsylvania on Wednesday selling an extension and expansion of the payroll tax credit, has yet to turn his focus to unemployment benefits, a prickly topic among Republican lawmakers who have said the program is too expensive.
The measure could be packaged together with several other expiring provisions, including the Medicare "doc fix" that prevents a scheduled cut in physician payments, the payroll tax credit and a series of other tax breaks known as "extenders."
The tax extenders, which include breaks for research and development, are popular with the GOP. Packaging them with unemployment benefits could help the two sides reach a compromise.
House Minority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said that while the agenda is full for the home stretch into 2012, "there's no more important piece of legislation" than extending benefits.
"We'll see if Congress has the heart and soul to act," he said.
While advocates for the unemployed had hoped the supercommittee would have included the extension in their budget plan, they are still optimistic that lawmakers can reach an agreement.
If a bill isn't cleared by Congress before Dec. 31, 2.1 million people could lose their benefits by mid-February, and 6.1 million would see their checks vanish by the end of next year, the National Employment Law Project has estimated.
It doesn't extend benefits beyond 99 weeks.
The cost of extending the federal unemployment benefits for a year is $44 billion and advocates, along with the Congressional Budget Office and economists, have said it has an outsized effect on the economy — pumping in double the money because those getting the benefits spend them quickly.
Those supporting a reauthorization of unemployment benefits say not acting by Christmas could lead to job losses and force consumers, who have shown their willingness to spend early in the holiday season, to retreat back into stockpiling mode, likely slowing the improving economy.
Labor Department Secretary Hilda Solis said "the clock is ticking we have one month" and there are millions "counting on Congress to extend benefits."
"We can't cut them off it's an important lifeline," she said on Capitol Hill.
Solis said this isn't the first time benefits have been extended two to three years after a recession and called the move "nothing unusual."
Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), sponsor of the Senate's companion measure vowed to work "24-7 to get this done."
Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas), sponsor of the House measure said he's "ready to work with anyone in either party" to pass the measure.
Last week, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) Hoyer and Assistant Leader James Clyburn (S.C.) sent a letter this week to Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) calling on him to ensure passage of the benefits by the end of the year along with the payroll tax credit and the doc fix.
The trio also promised Democrats would not offer amendments that might slow the process.
House-sponsored legislation also would relieve states that have federal unemployment insurance loans from interest charges next year, prevent higher federal unemployment taxes beginning in January on employers in insolvent states and provide a solvency bonus to states without any outstanding loans.