Congressional Republicans feel little political pressure to extend unemployment benefits for more than 1 million jobless Americans, confident that President Obama’s push for that additional aid would undercut his message that the economy is recovering and that his fiscal policies are working.
If Republicans can successfully reframe the debate over unemployment benefits for voters, a crucial component of the Democrats’ election-year strategy could be upended.
The president is looking to turn the page on the disastrous Obamacare rollout and put the Republicans on the defensive with pocketbook issues that traditionally favor Democrats, including reinstating benefits for 1.3 million Americans out of work for 26 weeks or more and an higher minimum wage.
But Republicans argue that Obama's strategy won't box them into a political corner. Instead, they said, the president's insistence on the dire need for additional jobless aid sends the message to voters that five years of his Democratic stewardship has failed to revive the economy.
Republicans are somewhat concerned that opposing the benefits extension could paint them as insensitive in the eyes of voters. And, publicly, Republicans will try to convey sympathy for the unemployed and emphasize their support for the measure if Democrats agree to couple it with other job creation proposals and offset its $6.5 billion price tag with savings from other government programs. Privately, though, they are not too worried that opposing the extension will damage them politically.
“Most important to Americans is, even if you had an extension for three months, what are you doing to solve the broad picture of the economy and creating jobs,” said Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran, who as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee is leading the GOP effort to win control of the upper chamber this November. “The big picture is, you’ve had [five] years of President Obama with no real change.”
Democrats dismissed the notion that advocating for the benefits extension, and characterizing it as "desperately needed," would complicate their election-year message that Obama’s policies have created an economic turnaround. Republicans, they argue, have miscalculated if they believe voters won’t punish their opposition to helping the longterm jobless.
“This is a changing economy,” Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., told the Washington Examiner. “It’s not like it was 20 years ago, where as soon as the economy starts coming back, well, they’ll rehire the third shift, because the third shift’s working again. Now, the whole company’s moved overseas.”
Senate Republicans offered to support a three-month extension of unemployment benefits if Democrats agree to pay for the $6.5 billion cost with budget cuts. Six Senate Republicans this week joined with all of the chamber's Democrats in advancing a measure that would extend the benefits for three months, but the extension's chances of passing still depend on Democrats and Republicans resolving differences over whether to offset the cost with cuts.
The package faces an even bleaker future in the House — and not just because the bill was classified as “emergency” spending and would add to the deficit. Even before House Republicans returned to Washington for their first vote of 2014, GOP leaders distributed talking points to members countering Obama’s pitch for the extension.
The document did urge members to highlight their concern for the unemployed and focus on GOP priorities to create jobs. But the Republicans’ overarching message was this: Obama and congressional Democrats want to extend unemployment benefits because their policies have hampered the economic recovery.
To underscore that message, House Republicans intend to repeatedly mention that they have approved several bills to stimulate job creation and increase wages that were opposed by the White House and buried by Democrats in the Senate.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said his caucus would consider a three-month extension of unemployment benefits, but only if the proposal is paid for with other savings and is amended to include Republican-supported job-creation measures.
“To date, the president has offered no such plan," Boehner said in a statement. "I’ll be happy to discuss it.”
Some congressional Republicans are concerned that their party could take a hit if the unemployment benefits extension is defeated and the GOP is blamed for the legislation’s failure. That was evident in the six Senate Republicans who voted Tuesday to advance the Democratic bill because they represent states that are politically competitive, still saddled with high unemployment, or both.
Nevada Sen. Dean Heller is the only Republican to co-sponsor the Democratic-driven proposal to extend unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless for three months (Reed is the other principle co-author.). Heller would prefer that the extension's cost be offset by other budget savings, and he blames Obama's economic policies for slowing an economic recovery.
But the Republican will support the legislation regardless, saying the extension is needed because people are still struggling to find work. Heller's home state of Nevada has one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation at 9 percent. Republicans, Heller warned, risk political blowback if their opposition to the extension is interpreted as callous by voters.
“Minus a pay-for I’m still going to support this because there are people out there that do need help,” Heller told the Examiner. “For Republicans to come up with their ideas I think is important so that we don’t fall in that category that perhaps we care less than the Democratic Party.”