Fourteen Democratic governors have signed a letter drafted by Gov. Martin O'Malley that calls on Congress to extend federal unemployment benefits quickly or risk slowing the nation's economic recovery.
"Congress should extend unemployment benefits, as many states continue to experience persistent levels of high unemployment," according to the letter, which was made public Wednesday and will be sent to House and Senate leaders. "Unemployment insurance has been effective in providing stability to our states' economies during times of uncertainty and weakness."
O'Malley, a Democrat who is considering a run for president in 2016, is circulating the letter as the Senate debates a bill that would extend the long-term jobless benefits for three months. Six Republicans joined Democrats in the Senate Tuesday to bring that legislation to the floor, though the bill's chances of final passage remain unclear.
The letter is signed by governors of 12 states -- including California, Illinois and Massachusetts -- as well as the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.
About 1.3 million people nationwide -- including more than 25,000 in Maryland -- lost benefits starting Dec. 28 when lawmakers in both parties approved a budget that did not address the expiring program. Democrats, led by the Obama administration, are now pushing hard to frame the issue as part of the broader debate over income inequality.
Some Republicans have expressed a willingness to extend the benefits as long as it doesn't add to budget deficits. They want the $6.4 billion cost to come from cuts elsewhere in the budget. Other Republicans, notably Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, have argued the program works as a disincentive for the unemployed to find work.
Congress approved the federal benefits with broad bipartisan support in 2008 when the U.S. unemployment rate stood at 5.6 percent. The current unemployment rate is 7 percent, down from a peak of 10 percent in late 2009. Maryland's unemployment is 6.4 percent.
The federal program pays for unemployment beyond the 26 weeks typically covered by states.
O'Malley and the other governors used the letter to reiterate the economic argument in favor of extending the program: That the spending provides a boost to the economy. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates continuing the benefits would increase economic activity by two-tenths of a percent this year and add about 200,000 jobs.
"Not only does the EUC program benefit the long-term unemployed, but it also helps to inject revenue into our local economies, which saves and creates critically needed jobs throughout our economy," the letter reads.