US Congress to begin 2014 with jobless benefits battle

US Congress to begin 2014 with jobless benefits battle

WASHINGTON - The US Congress begins what promises to be another highly combative year on Monday with a showdown over a White House-backed bid to renew unemployment benefits for 1.3 million Americans.

The battle will kick off a 2014 drive by President Barack Obama and fellow Democrats to stem a growing gap between rich and poor.

The Democrat-led Senate plans to escalate the fight in coming weeks by bringing up for a vote a bill to increase the federal minimum wage, which has stood at $7.25 (S$9.20) an hour since July 2009. Democrats want the minimum wage to rise over three years to $10.10 and then be indexed to inflation in the future.

"We are trying to catch up with what the American people have known for years - that they are working more for less," Democratic Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island said in an interview.

Reed is a leading advocate of a minimum wage increase and, along with Republican Senator Dean Heller of Nevada, is sponsoring a bill to restore jobless benefits for 1.3 million Americans and prevent thousands more from soon losing such aid.

The Reed-Heller measure would extend for three months the Emergency Unemployment Compensation programme, which ended on Dec. 28 when its funding expired.

Signed into law in 2008 by Republican President George W. Bush, the programme provided the jobless an average of $300 per week for an additional 28 weeks once state benefits ended.

Supporters argue that besides helping the unemployed, it boosts the economy as recipients quickly spend their benefit checks on essential goods, helping local retailers.

"Providing a safety net for those in need is one of the most important functions of the federal government," the conservative Heller said in a statement.

It is unclear if legislation to renew the 2008 emergency programme or increase the minimum wage will muster the needed 60 votes in the 100-member Senate to clear procedural hurdles erected by Republicans.

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