Democrats in Congress are making a play to shore up extended assistance for 1.3 million long-term unemployed in this election year, though it's hard to be enthusiastic about their efforts. They are looking for an extension of only three months, which is short of what's needed.

The extended benefits were last authorized in 2008, when the unemployment rate was 5.6 percent. Today it's 6.7 percent.

The aid should depend on the level of unemployment, specifically the number of workers who have been jobless for at least six months, when state assistance typically expires. That group currently makes up 2.6 percent of the workforce, a sign that long-term unemployment remains a serious problem.

In previous economic downturns, extended unemployment benefits have been reduced only when the rate of long-term unemployment fell to 1.3 percent or lower. That makes assertions that this is the right time to cut benefits absurd.

Almost as misleading is the claim by U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., that extended assistance creates a "disincentive to work." The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has found that a small number of people "would reduce the intensity of their job search" while receiving benefits, but it noted that the effect would be modest and that the available jobs would be taken by other unemployed people.

Last week, the Senate cleared a procedural hurdle toward extending assistance. Voting to consider the benefits extension were all the chamber's Democrats and six of its Republicans. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., voted no.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, is signaling that the extension would have a hard time in the House. He is calling for the spending to be offset by cuts and traded for modifications of the Affordable Care Act. Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., has proposed offsetting the costs of the $6.4 billion short-term fix by reducing farm subsidies.

That might be acceptable, but other members are insisting on cuts to food stamps, which would be cruel. Many of the long-term unemployed use the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and they should not be forced to choose between less food and less money to buy food and other necessities.

Extended jobless benefits have been unavailable since Dec. 28. The resulting reduction in consumer spending is costing the economy $408 million a week, including $34 million a week in New Jersey and $25 million a week in Pennsylvania. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the economy could lose 200,000 jobs this year without the infusion of unemployment aid, spreading misery to more people.

Many of those losing their weekly checks, meanwhile, are in dire situations. These are people who have few options and are trying to return to the workforce, which is a requirement for those receiving unemployment assistance. Congress should extend this help until long-term joblessness subsides.

--The Philadelphia Inquirer, Jan. 13