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What Should Obama and Congress Do About Jobs?

The atrocious jobs numbers released Friday have added new fuel to the already heated debate over what the government should be doing to help unemployed Americans. But for the time being, it remains mostly an academic spat among wonks. The fact is that any real progress on solutions for unemployment has screeched to a halt on Capitol Hill and won’t get back on track until at least next week.

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Job seekers take a break outside after speaking with recruiters during a career fair in Chicago last month. (Scott Olson / Getty Images)

The atrocious jobs numbers released Friday—the economy added just 83,000 new private-sector jobs in June—have added new fuel to the already heated debate over what the government should be doing to help unemployed Americans.

Exhibit A: David Brooks, the great moderate hope, attacks the subject in a New York Times column Tuesday. He bashes backers of new stimulus, complaining that there isn't evidence for the government to make further large-scale infusions of cash into the economy. Instead, Brooks suggests the government extend unemployment benefits, something Congress has been hesitant to do, and extend much-needed aid to state governments, which not only face dire straits but, unlike the federal government, can't run deficits.

Brooks’s argument has caused a minor food fight between wonks. Time's Joe Klein calls his argument "not very convincing, and somewhat confused," while fellowTimes columnist Paul Krugman—one of the "Demand Siders" Brooks calls out—responds with a characteristically combative blog post insisting he's got plenty of evidence for why we need a new stimulus.

The fact is that any real progress on solutions for unemployment has screeched to a halt on Capitol Hill. NEWSWEEK's Daniel Gross wrote last week that the paucity of serious proposals suggests politicians just don't care about unemployment. After repeated attempts, Democrats have still failed to move a bill extending unemployment insurance—one of Brooks's suggestions—through the Senate, with opposition from deficit hawks hanging it up. The liberal site Think Progress has compiled a list of shame featuring senators from states with high unemployment who still voted against extending benefits on multiple occasions. The latest attempt was put on ice to allow members of Congress to recess for July 4. President Obama voiced his frustration with the lack of progress during his Saturday radio address, blaming Republican obstructionism.

While it's certainly a political liability for Obama and Democrats—although the GOP might not benefit much either—the real losers are clearly out-of-work Americans. Since the last time Congress authorized an extension in May, 1.3 million people have seen their benefits lapse (that's out of a total of about 15 million jobless Americans overall). But perhaps some time at home with unemployed constituents will spur representatives and senators into action. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid says the unemployment-benefits extension, which costs $3.5 billion, will be back on the table when Congress returns to work on Monday July 12.

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