Senate Democrats are joining the White House to call for the extension of federal unemployment insurance benefits as part of a deal to avert the so-called fiscal cliff. As they fight to gain traction, Democrats are seeking to define themselves as the party fighting for the middle class—while Republicans are only interested in tax breaks for the wealthy.
“Many of the elements of the fiscal cliff are abstract concepts to struggling middle class families. Unemployment benefits are not abstract,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York.
“Make no mistake about it. Any year-end agreement to deal with the fiscal cliff would be incomplete, unfair, unwise, unless it includes an extension of this important program,” Schumer said.
The fight over extending unemployment benefits could be particularly intense this year, given escalating partisan tensions over the fiscal cliff and the limited time remaining to strike a deal with spending-averse Republicans.
Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin said that Democrats would be equally happy to see unemployment insurance dealt with separately, rather than included in a fiscal cliff deal.
“We cannot allow unemployment insurance to be held hostage to some fiscal cliff arrangement,” Harkin said. “If there is an agreement on the fiscal cliff, unemployment insurance must be included, if there is not an agreement reached, we must extend unemployment [insurance] separately.”
Senate Democrats are speaking up a week after the White House presented Congressional Republicans with a plan for averting the cliff and reducing the deficit that included extending emergency unemployment compensation and benefits for an additional year. Forty-two Senate Democrats recently signed a letter calling for extending federal unemployment insurance programs.
To extend unemployment insurance programs for an additional year would cost $30 billion and create 300,000 jobs, according to the Congressional Budget Office. House Republicans have already balked at the White House proposal to include more short-term stimulus spending in a fiscal cliff deal.
“At this point we are here primarily to make sure that this issue of extending unemployment benefits is on the table,” said Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island. The parameters of such an extension could be negotiated, he said. He indicated that although Democrats would prefer not to offset the cost of the program through cuts elsewhere, they were open to the idea of doing so.