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Washington Beat: U.S. Economy Still Struggling as Jobless Rate Hits Five-Year Low

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The. U.S. Department of Labor on Friday announced employers added 74,000 jobs in December and the unemployment rate fell to 6.7 percent, but some officials say the development is not as good as it sounds. Washington bureau reporter Geoff Bennett filed the following report.

The Labor Department said Friday the nation’s unemployment rate fell to 6.7 percent last month from seven percent in November. It’s the lowest level since the fall of 2008.  That’s good news until you consider that the drop occurred because nearly 350,000 Americans stopped looking for work last month.

"It’s an illustration that we need to pick up the pace of growth. The president has said that and he’s put forth a very robust plan. And what we also see from last month, which is very important,  is that it illustrates the need for Congress to act immediately to extend long-term unemployment benefits for those who need that critical lifeline," said U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez.

Extending federal long-term jobless benefits is the latest source of political tension on Capitol Hill. Republicans have said they want to offset its $6.4 billion price tag with cuts somewhere else.

"I made clear that we would consider it, extending emergency employment benefits, if it was paid for and if there were provisions that we could agree to that would get our economy moving again and put the American people back to work," said House Speaker John Boehner.

Senate Democrats on Thursday introduced a scaled-back measure that would provide 31 weeks of benefits for the long-term unemployed which is fully paid for. Democrats – including President Barack Obama – have signaled their intention to make unemployment benefits and income inequality a hallmark of the 2014 midterm elections.

"We particularly hope that the Republican majority in the House will not just block anything we do, if we're able to come to an agreement.  If they do, it's going to hurt them in the election," said Senator Charles Schumer.

Meanwhile, the Labor Secretary says that while the economy is showing steady overall growth it still has three applicants looking for one available job, and he’s pushing Congress to renew those benefits.

"It would literally be unprecedented for Congress to fail to act, given the current rate of long-term unemployment," Perez said.

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