By CNN’s Bryan Koenig
(CNN) — Long-term unemployment benefits for 1.3 million Americans expired Saturday after Congress failed to pass an extension. Reinstating those benefits is expected to be one of the first priorities for congressional Democrats in the new year.
“Extending unemployment insurance is the right thing to do for millions of Americans who are trying to support their families,” Democratic National Committee chairwoman and Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz said in a statement Saturday. “What makes matters worse, the loss of benefits comes just a few days after the holidays.”
Like most Democrats, Wasserman Schultz laid the blame for the expiring benefits –now reverting back to 26 weeks of coverage — squarely at the feet of congressional Republicans.
Many Republicans have in turn argued that the extended emergency federal benefits – passed during the Great Recession – are a disincentive for job hunting and are no longer necessary as the economy improves and unemployment ticks down.
Unemployment isn’t going down fast enough, say Democrats. They argue that without the extended benefits, recipients will severely curtail their spending and be a drag on the economy.
“As we continue our work to create more good paying jobs, it is essential that we extend unemployment benefits to the millions of American families who still need and rely on them,” Wasserman Schultz said.
President Barack Obama also weighed in Friday, according to the White House. In a phone call to Sens. Jack Reed, D-Rhode Island, and Dean Heller, R-Nevada, Obama voiced his own support for reinstating the prolonged benefits, the goal of a bill co-sponsored by the two men. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has pledged to take the benefits up as soon as the chamber returns from its break early next month.
Heller has been one of the few Republicans to vocally support extending the benefits – although House Speaker John Boehner has expressed some willingness to negotiate on the matter.
In a statement announcing his extension bill, Heller argued that “providing a safety net for those in need is one of the most important functions of the federal government.”
“As Nevada’s unemployment rate continues to top the charts nationwide, many families and individuals back home do not know how they are going to meet their basic needs,” Heller said.
A number of Democrats also took to Twitter on Saturday to argue for extending the benefits.
–CNNMoney’s Emily Jane Fox, Annalyn Kurtz and Jennifer Liberto contributed to this report.
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