(CNSNews.com) - Interrupting their vacation on Thursday, two Democrats -- Sen. Jack Reed of R.I. and Rep. Sander Levin of Michigan -- demanded that Republicans go along with a three-month extension of long-term unemployment benefits without immediately paying for them. The cost of a three-month extension is around $6.5 billion.
Losing jobless benefits is like being hit by an "economic hurricane," said Rep. Levin, who sits on the House Ways and Means Committee.
"And so that's the reason why, in the past -- much more often than not -- there has not been a pay-for. They haven't been offset. And I think what we hope to do both in the Senate and the House is to pass this three-month provision on a bipartisan basis -- not offset, and then we can sit down and talk further about where we go from here."
Sen. Reed said Democrats have introduced a bill providing a three-month, unpaid-for extension because "it will us the time to work on changes to the program that's necessary, but also time to look for appropriate pay-fors. And there are a long list of pay-fors, from offshore tax breaks, several (tax) loophole closings." He said any "serious discussion about tax policy" would produce a way to pay for the extension.
Reed noted that an extension of unemployment benefits has always been considered emergency spending because it helps people who are "in an economic emergency."
"I certainly would be open to discussions," Reed said, "but the first thing we have to do...is make sure that these individuals aren't cut off, they're not just thrown off the cliff starting literally this week. We have to keep the benefits going, and then if we want to sit down and seriously look at the program, look at ways to pay for it, I'd be willing to do that."
Because Congress left town without passing an extension, 1.3 million people will reach the end of their 26 weeks of state unemployment benefits on Dec. 28. And almost 2 million could lose their six months of state benefits in the new year.
Democrats, hoping to offset the political damage inflicted on them by Obamacare, are making the extension of unemployment benefits a political issue, casting Republicans as heartless scrooges for insisting that any extension be paid for.
In fact, Guy Molyneux, a researcher and the moderator of Thursday's conference call, told reporters, "This is, I think, a politically very powerful issue potentially next year." He said the polling indicates that "it's something that voters are very focused on and would like to see Congress tackle."
Reed and Levin agreed that the issue is becoming "personalized," as more and more hardship stories emerge, putting names and faces to the people who are losing the government checks they depend on. In fact, one of Reed's constituents, a job seeker in her 50s, joined Reed and Levin on the conference call with her sad story.
"[T]hose are the stories that penetrate the usual partisan rhetoric about this program and that program," Reed said. He added that Democrats will try to pass an unpaid-for extension on Jan. 6 -- "and if we don't succeed, we'll keep trying until we do."
House Speaker John Boehner says Republicans will go along with the extension of jobless benefits if it is paid for.
According to Levin, Boehner has said he "wanted to talk to the president about pay-fors. He also said he wanted to talk to the president about broader economic policy. I don't think, frankly, anything the speaker said does or should prevent Republicans joining Democrats to extend this program for three months without a pay-for. It's such an emergency. I mean, what do people want? Do they want people to essentially become homeless? I mean, what do people really expect here?"