Democrats worn down by the disastrous rollout of Obamacare are working to refocus Congress on an issue much more favorable to the Left: income disparity, including an extension of federal unemployment benefits and a higher minimum wage.
Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., flanked by other top Senate Democrats, rolled out the disparity initiative Thursday, saying the Senate would vote on a three-month extension of unemployment benefits when it returns in January for the second session of the 113th Congress.
"Even as the economy creates jobs, too many Americans find themselves on the sidelines watching as the rich get richer, the poor get poorer and the middle class are getting squeezed and squeezed," Reid told reporters. "There is no greater challenge this country has than income inequality. And we must do something about it."
Senate Democrats have good reason to divert public attention away from the troubled health care law in favor of wage issues.
Vulnerable Democratic senators up for re-election have watched their poll numbers drop as problems with the Obamacare rollout grew. Since October, millions of Americans have had existing health plans cancelled, premiums raised and their choices of doctors reduced.
A shift in focus to pocketbook issues affecting working Americans could put Republicans in a bind because they are likely to oppose the higher minimum wage and extended unemployment benefits that polls show Americans overwhelmingly approve.
"Issues like job creation, minimum wage and unemployment insurance are going to weigh on the minds of voters far more than Obamacare by the time the 2014 elections roll around," Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said.
Federal unemployment insurance runs out on Dec. 28. House Republicans have made no promises to extend the benefits, which were routinely renewed by Congress for more than 5 years. Republicans argue that the $26 billion price tag of new jobless benefits is too high and additional payments are unnecessary now that unemployment rate has dropped to 7 percent.
Reid said the Senate will make both issues a priority when it gavels back in the second week of January.
The first thing Congress should do, Reid said, "is to make sure that those people who are waiting and waiting to find a job still get the important check that they deserve."
One Democratic leader Thursday invoked the words of Pope Francis to make the case for a minimum wage increase. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., suggested the Pope would endorse a minimum wage increase because it would help close the divide between high-income earners and the middle class.
"He warned that income inequality leads to, in his words, an economy of exclusion and inequality and a globalization of indifference," Durbin said of the Pope.
Democrats are considering raising the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour, a nearly 40 percent increase.
Income inequality is a ready-made campaign issue for Democrats who can use it to paint the GOP as a pawn of an ultra-conservative Tea Party wing that has no concern for people struggling with the chronic unemployment and low wages that keep them living below the poverty line. Similar voter sentiment hurt the GOP in the 2012 election.
"Our Republican colleagues are going to have to make another choice and they're going to have to make it very soon," Schumer said. "Will they bend once again to the extreme right and leave millions of Americans who are struggling out in the cold? If they do, they will find it's to their political detriment and, more importantly, to the detriment of average people in this country."