December 24, 2013, 01:44 pm
Democrats find election-year weapon in expiring jobless aid
By Vicki Needham
Democrats are seizing on the expiration of federal unemployment benefits to batter the GOP ahead of the midterm elections.
They say Republicans are to blame for the failure of Congress to renew jobless aid for 1.3 million of the long-term unemployed and are making the point repeatedly in a coordinated messaging blitz over the holiday break.
Rep. Sandy Levin (D-Mich.) is leading an effort to drum up local news coverage about people who are losing their benefits, while House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Monday portrayed Republicans as oblivious to the plight of the unemployed.
"I don't know if my colleagues oppose it, or know or care about the impact on families," Pelosi said.
House and Senate Republicans have not taken a firm position on the future of the unemployment assistance, which expires Saturday.
The benefits were created during the height of the recession and kick in when state-level unemployment runs out. Participants must prove that they are looking for work to receive the benefits, which can run as long as 73 weeks.
President Obama has called for a three-month retroactive reauthorization of the program, and Senate Majority Harry Reid (D-Nev.) vowed to make it the first order of business when the Senate reconvenes in January.
“I will ensure that extending unemployment insurance is the first thing we vote on after the holiday,” Reid said last week.
A Senate vote could put Republicans in a tough spot.
Many have said they are open to continuing the benefits but want the $25.7 billion cost of the program covered by cuts in other spending.
Pelosi, however, has said she “hasn't come around to the need to pay for it.”
But even if the jobless aid passes the Senate in January, it’s not clear whether House Republicans will act on it.
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has only said that he is willing to look at a proposal, while leading House Republicans have been mostly silent on the issue.
Republicans in both chambers have been reluctant to pass another round of unemployment insurance now that the jobless rate has hit its lowest point in five years.
They note the aid has been in place since 2008, and reauthorized or expanded 11 times at a cost of more than $252 billion.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has been outspoken proponent of ending the program. He says providing benefits after 26 weeks is a "disservice" to workers.
"Does it make sense for our country to borrow money from China to give it to the unemployed in America? That is weakening us as a country," Paul said recently.
Democrats are intent on making the fight part of their populist economic pitch for the 2014 elections.
Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), the Senate's third-ranking Democrat, said Sunday that “job creation, the minimum wage and unemployment insurance” would be the dominant issues for voters next year.
Obama has chided congressional Republicans for failing to renew the jobless aid, and he is likely to press that attack during his State of the Union address on Jan. 28 if an extension isn’t passed.
"Republicans in Congress should've done it before leaving town this week," Obama said at his end-of-year press conference.
Democrats point to polling that shows broad support for maintaining the program while the unemployment rate remains high.
Voters in four swing districts said they would be less likely to vote for the Republican incumbent by at least a 9-point margin if he or she opposes the jobless aid, according to data from the liberal-leaning Public Policy Polling (PPP).
The four districts polled by PPP — those of Reps. Dan Benishek (R-Mich.), Rodney Davis (R-Ill.), Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) and Gary Miller (R-Calif.) — are all top targets for Democrats in the 2014 election cycle.
"Republicans have stalled every effort to further promote the recovery and now they are stalling the effort to assist the long-term unemployed," a Democratic aide told The Hill.
"That will come back to bite them."
Liberal economists argue the jobless aid is having a positive effect on the economy and should be extended to provide fuel for the recovery.
The loss of the federal aid would deprive the states of spending that supports 238,000 jobs, according to the National Employment Law Project (NELP).
"In a time when far too many are struggling to find jobs and are settling for ones that pay substandard wages and benefits, the voters are going to be looking to see who is trying to lift up those who are struggling, and who is trying to give more to those who are doing just fine," Judy Conti, federal advocacy coordinator for NELP told The Hill.
"I think elected officials thumb their noses at the unemployed and low-wage workforce at their own peril, and I'm glad to see people starting to focus on it," Conti said.