By Caren Bohan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. congressional Democrats are pushing to extend emergency unemployment benefits, saying they are needed to help the economy and provide a safety net for Americans struggling in a sluggish job market.
Extending unemployment benefits is a priority of President Barack Obama, and his fellow Democrats see an opportunity to include such an extension in a possible budget deal that is being negotiated by a bipartisan panel led by Republican Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Democratic Senator Patty Murray of Washington.
"This is a human crisis for hundreds of thousands of people," said Michigan Congressman Sander Levin, senior Democrat on the House of Representative Ways and Means Committee and a lead sponsor of legislation in the House that would continue federal unemployment benefits through 2014. Senator Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island, is a lead sponsor of identical legislation in the Senate.
Without the legislation, 1.3 million Americans will see their benefits expire in the week of December 28, Democrats warned. That would have ripple effects through the economy because it would curb household spending while the economy is growing at only a modest pace.
The U.S. unemployment rate stood at 7.3 percent in October, according to the Labor Department.
Federal unemployment benefits kick in for out-of-work Americans who have exhausted their state unemployment aid, which in many states runs out after 26 weeks.
The emergency aid began during the Great Recession in 2008 and has been renewed every year since, most recently as part of the budget deal to avert the "fiscal cliff" of automatic tax increases.
The budget negotiating panel faces a December 13 deadline to reach a deal. A month later, on January 15, funding for federal agencies is due to run out unless Congress can agree on spending measures.
Democratic supporters of the unemployment insurance legislation said there are other possible bills to which they might seek to attach the extension, but they view the budget negotiations as the best avenue for getting it passed by Congress.
(Reporting by Caren Bohan; Editing by Vicki Allen)