WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama stepped up criticism of Republicans on Saturday for blocking jobless aid, hammering home a Democratic election year attack line that casts the opposition as the party of the rich.
“Too often, the Republican leadership in the United States Senate chooses to filibuster our recovery and obstruct our progress. And that has very real consequences,” Obama said in his weekly radio and Internet address.
Senate Republicans have used the filibuster, a procedural hurdle demanding 60 votes in the 100-member chamber, to block at least three Democratic initiatives to extend unemployment insurance. Republicans cite the need to curb government spending amid a record budget deficit.
“Think about what these stalling tactics mean for the millions of Americans who’ve lost their jobs since the recession began. Over the past several weeks, more than two million of them have seen their unemployment insurance expire,” the president said.
Obama has made job creation his top domestic priority and has traveled repeatedly to the U.S. heartland to tout policies that lift hiring, including a trip to Holland, Michigan, on Thursday for the groundbreaking of an electric car battery factory that has received federal dollars.
U.S. growth has resumed after the worst recession in decades, thanks in part to a $862 billion stimulus plan Obama signed last year.
But this recovery has been slow to produce new jobs, and his Democrats risk punishment by voters in congressional elections on November 2 unless there is a drop in unemployment, now running at 9.5 percent.
Time is running out. A recent poll showed confidence in Obama’s economic stewardship has flagged, and Democrats could lose control of the House of Representatives in November. All 435 seats in the House are up for grabs, as well as 36 of the 100 seats in the U.S. Senate.
Frustratingly for the White House, its proposals to extend unemployment insurance, cut capital gains taxes on investments and set up a fund to boost lending to small businesses have been repeatedly blocked on Capitol Hill.
Republicans rejected the claim they were using congressional rules to thwart the process and said there had been no votes of any sort on small business lending.
“Nobody has ‘used procedural tactics to block a simple, up-or-down vote.’ It’s just not accurate,” said Don Stewart, spokesman for Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, referring to another of the president’s remarks.
Senate Republicans say the country cannot afford more taxpayer-funded government spending, on top of Obama’s emergency stimulus package, an argument that taps into public disquiet over a record budget deficit and rising debt.
But the White House, which says the deficit should be tackled in the medium term once the labor market has properly healed, calls this politically motivated obstruction and says Republicans are siding with the rich.
“They say we shouldn’t provide unemployment insurance because it costs money,” chided Obama.
“So after years of championing policies that turned a record surplus into a massive deficit, including a tax cut for the wealthiest Americans, they’ve finally decided to make their stand on the backs of the unemployed,” he said.
The White House is particularly scornful of Republican criticism of the deficit, which is forecast to hit a record $1.56 trillion in the current fiscal year.
Obama’s Republican predecessor George W. Bush inherited a surplus from Democratic President Bill Clinton, but handed Obama a $1.3 trillion deficit eight years later, which his White House blames on Bush-era tax cuts and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that were funded with deficits.
“They’ve got no problem spending money on tax breaks for folks at the top who don’t need them and didn’t even ask for them; but they object to helping folks laid off in this recession who really do need help,” Obama said.
Reporting by Alister Bull; editing by Mohammad Zargham and Vicki Allen
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