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White House offers 'grand bargain' on tax cuts and infrastructure

By Tom Curry, National Affairs Writer, NBC News

Gene Sperling, the director of President Barack Obama’s National Economic Council, said Sunday that Obama is offering congressional Republicans “a grand bargain on jobs. He has said he would be willing to do corporate tax reform that lowers rates to 28 percent, simplifies taxes for small businesses, but do it together with a major infrastructure investment.” 

In his budget proposal last year, Obama called for $50 billion in additional short-term federal spending on infrastructure projects such as bridges, highways, and mass transit systems, as well as creation of a National Infrastructure Bank to make loans to such projects.

“The economy is improving” and “we’ve had a lot of momentum,” Sperling said on NBC’s Meet the Press, but there are still “people who are desperately looking for work.” He said, “We have to admit – and we do admit -- that the worst legacy of this great recession is the crisis of long-term unemployment.”

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of long-term unemployed, those who are jobless for 27 weeks or more, stood at 4.1 million in November. They accounted for nearly 40 percent of all the unemployed.

Sperling argued that there’s still a need for the emergency unemployment benefits program which President George W. Bush signed into law in the summer of 2008.

The Senate is scheduled to vote Monday on a proposed three-month extension of the Bush Era emergency unemployment benefits program. The Emergency Unemployment Compensation program covers jobless people who have exhausted their benefits under their state’s regular unemployment benefits program.

Sperling rebuffed Republican calls for spending cuts to offset the cost of extending the benefits program. “All five times that President Bush extended unemployment benefits there were no ‘pay-fors,’” he told NBC’s David Gregory.  

He said a three-month extension of the emergency program would open the way for extending it for the remainder of 2014. “If you don’t extend it for the rest of the year, it’s going to affect really 14 million Americans,” Sperling said.

Appearing alongside Sperling, Jim Cramer, host of CNBC’s Mad Money, said Congress must extend the unemployment benefits program, but added, “My problem is: How does it create highly trained workers? How does it create jobs that are highly skilled, that pay a lot?”

For the long-term unemployed, Cramer said, “the question is: how do we get these people to where the jobs are? Why are we not being more focused on not just upward mobility, but on mobility to where the booms are in this country – and there are booms.”

Cramer said an increase in the federal minimum wage, which Obama supports, and an extension of emergency unemployment benefits “do not do anything” to get unemployed people to relocate to states which have labor shortages.

“What’s being done to get people to Louisiana, to Texas, to Ohio, to North Dakota, to Pennsylvania, to New Mexico, to Montana? These are states that need workers but no one is helping them (the unemployed) get there.”

 Cramer also noted that “the dogma is now, post-Clinton, pro-immigration, at a time when we have a much larger supply of labor than we need.” He asked, “Why don’t we care more about our people?”

Appearing on ABC’s This Week, Sen. Rand Paul, R - Ky., said Sunday, “What is really cruel is to have an economy that doesn't have jobs in it, so we have to talk about what policy creates jobs. With regard to unemployment insurance, I have always said that I'm not opposed to unemployment insurance; I am opposed to having it without paying for it. I think it's wrong to borrow money from China or simply to print up money for it, but I'm not against having unemployment insurance.”

But he argued that long-term unemployment benefits create a disincentive to work. “We have to figure out how to create jobs and keep people from becoming long-term unemployed. That's why I've promoted the economy freedom zones, which would dramatically lower taxes in areas where there is long-term unemployment.”