By Raju Chebium
Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - Congress is giving 222,000 jobless Californians coal for Christmas.
Members chose not to renew federal unemployment benefits beyond Dec. 28 and headed home for the holidays. As a result, 1.3 million Americans will be cut off by year's end even if they have more time left on the federal program.
Californians who haven't yet exhausted the full 63 weeks of assistance from Uncle Sam will lose their benefits just like those who have.
Unless Congress passes legislation reviving the federal program, jobless Californians will be eligible only for up to 26 weeks of state-financed assistance next year.
Congress has been paying unemployment claims continuously since 2008 to about 24 million Americans who lost their jobs in the recession. The average federal benefit for Californians is $305 per week, according to the state Employment Development Department.
The loss of federal benefits shouldn't come as a surprise.
"Notices were sent to those certifying for extension benefits advising them of the scheduled cutoff so they can plan their personal finances accordingly," the state agency said on its Web site.
The federal program used to pay beneficiaries for up to 73 weeks. That means people who qualified for the full 26 weeks of state assistance received weekly payments from Washington and Sacramento for up to 99 weeks.
Congressional Democrats vow to push for an extension in early January. They tried to include it in the two-year budget deal that lawmakers approved before going home, but Republicans refused to consider renewing the program unless Congress trimmed the budget someplace else. Some critics said Congress should shutter the program altogether because the economy is improving.
About 37 percent of the 1.3 million Americans on the verge of losing their federal payments have been out of work for six months or longer, said Gene Sperling, President Barack Obama's top economic adviser.
"We have never, as a country, cut off emergency unemployment benefits when we've had this degree of long-term unemployment," Sperling, director of the National Economic Council, told reporters during a conference call Friday.
"It would be unprecedented and it would be insensitive to the struggles and the needs of these families," he said. "These are not the people who caused the financial crisis. These people are the victims of the financial crisis."
The economy grew at a higher-than-expected 4.1 percent annual rate from July through September, and the U.S. unemployment rate has fallen to the lowest it's been in years -- 7 percent in November. California's jobless rate last month was 8.5 percent.
Though he's encouraged by the good economic news, Obama is "not even close to satisfied" and wants Congress to extend unemployment assistance first thing in January, Sperling said. Obama reiterated that message in a news conference later Friday, during which he also said 2014 could be a "breakthrough" for the long-battered economy.
House Republicans are wary of the cost of yet another extension. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated that a one-year renewal proposed by some House Democrats would cost $25.7 billion. According to the California Employment Development Department, Uncle Sam has provided $44.6 billion worth of jobless benefits just to Californians since 2008.
Some conservatives oppose unemployment insurance on principle, arguing that people are likely to stop looking for work if the government keeps giving them money.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said he supports only the 26-week state programs.
"If you extend it beyond that, you do a disservice to these workers," the potential 2016 presidential candidate said on Fox News this month. "When you allow people to be on unemployment insurance for 99 weeks, you're causing them to become part of this perpetual unemployed group in our economy."
The Associated Press contributed to this story
Contact Raju Chebium at firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @rchebium
Gannett Washington Bureau