Why Republicans and Democrats Should Compromise to Extend Unemployment Benefits

Without give and take, the GOP looks heartless and the White House looks clueless.

MIAMI, FL - MAY 02: People looking for work stand in line to apply for a job during a job fair at the Miami Dolphins Sun Life stadium on May 2, 2013 in Miami, Florida. If voters approve a hotel tax hike to fund stadium renovations the jobs would be available. If not, the Dolphins management is indicating they would not be able to renovate the stadium nor create the jobs. 
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Ron Fournier
Jan. 7, 2014, 7:28 a.m.

Re­pub­lic­ans risk look­ing heart­less and Demo­crats clue­less in the de­bate over wheth­er to ex­tend un­em­ploy­ment be­ne­fits to 1.3 mil­lion chron­ic­ally job­less Amer­ic­ans. The solu­tion: com­prom­ise.

At is­sue is a bill to provide a three-month ex­ten­sion of gov­ern­ment be­ne­fits for people who have been out of work for more than six months. This fight is a mi­cro­cosm of a broad­er di­vide over how the U.S. polit­ic­al sys­tem should re­spond to the ef­fects of post-in­dus­tri­al eco­nom­ic change — a knot of is­sues in­clud­ing flattened up­ward mo­bil­ity, wage stag­na­tion, in­come in­equal­ity, and long-term un­em­ploy­ment.

For Re­pub­lic­ans, op­pos­ing a salve for dur­ably job­less Amer­ic­ans could widen the party’s so-called em­pathy gap. As NBC’s First Read re­por­ted, exit polls from the 2012 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion showed that a ma­jor­ity of voters be­lieved that Mitt Rom­ney’s policies favored the rich. In a postelec­tion ana­lys­is, GOP lead­ers said the party “must be the cham­pi­on of those who seek to climb the eco­nom­ic lad­der of life.” In 2013, the party sought to cut spend­ing for food stamps and, in many states, op­posed ex­pand­ing Medi­caid to provide health in­sur­ance to low-in­come Amer­ic­ans. A re­cent NBC/Wall Street Journ­al poll showed the GOP trail­ing Demo­crats by 28 points on the is­sue of “show­ing pas­sion and con­cern for people.”

At the same time, ca­pit­u­la­tion would be risky for GOP lead­ers. Many con­ser­vat­ive voters be­lieve un­em­ploy­ment be­ne­fits foster de­pend­ency on gov­ern­ment lar­gesse. In their eyes, un­em­ployed Amer­ic­ans are mostly moochers.

Out of this polit­ic­al di­lemma came a GOP pro­pos­al: They might al­low the bill to get to Pres­id­ent Obama’s desk if its cost — $6.4 bil­lion over 10 years — is off­set by cuts else­where in the U.S. budget. As Na­tion­al Journ­al‘s Fawn John­son put it, “It’s a con­ver­sa­tion shift that makes Demo­crats nervous. Once your start bat­tling over how to pay for something, le­gis­lat­ive talks be­come a new ball game. Passing the bill is no longer a brute battle of polit­ic­al wills. It’s a trad­ing match.”

Law­makers should be nervous. This should be a trad­ing match, not a zero-sum battle, be­cause both sides have mer­it. Demo­crats are right: The be­ne­fits should be ex­ten­ded. Most un­em­ployed people want to work, but need help from their fel­low cit­izens to sur­vive the gap between hard-to-find jobs. Re­pub­lic­ans are right: The na­tion is $17 tril­lion in debt, and cuts can be found for this re­l­at­ively mod­est ex­pense.

The bill cleared a pro­ced­ur­al hurdle in the Sen­ate today with some GOP help. If it passes the Sen­ate it goes to the House, where the Re­pub­lic­an op­pos­i­tion is strongest.

So far, the White House in­sists on ex­tend­ing be­ne­fits without off­set­ting cuts. Obama today ar­gued that such bills have passed Con­gress by bi­par­tis­an votes “with no strings at­tached,” which is true but mis­lead­ing. He ig­nored the fact that ex­ten­sions came with off­sets in 2009, 2011, and 2012. Why not now?

A my-way-or-the-high­way ap­proach could back­fire on con­gres­sion­al Demo­crats and the White House be­cause most voters grasp the ne­ces­sity of fisc­al re­spons­ib­il­ity and com­prom­ise. Lib­er­al colum­nist Greg Sar­gent of The Wash­ing­ton Post urged Demo­crats to call the bluff of Re­pub­lic­ans “by chal­len­ging them to sup­port a pay-for that does not un­der­cut the re­cov­ery — for­cing them to either agree to an ex­ten­sion or re­veal that they are pri­or­it­iz­ing cor­por­ate tax breaks over aid to the job­less.”

That is sound ad­vice (though both parties would squabble over which cuts to make). While the hy­per-par­tis­an GOP House may not be will­ing to ne­go­ti­ate, Obama and his fel­low Demo­crats must try. Dare the GOP to re­ject a com­prom­ise. Dare them to widen the em­pathy gap. After all, Re­pub­lic­ans have the most to lose in a fair fight. So make it fair.

“One month ago I per­son­ally told the White House that an­oth­er ex­ten­sion of tem­por­ary emer­gency un­em­ploy­ment be­ne­fits should not only be paid for but in­clude something to help put people back to work,” House Speak­er John Boehner said in a state­ment. “To date, the pres­id­ent has offered no such plan. If he does, I’ll be happy to dis­cuss it, but right now the House is go­ing to re­main fo­cused on grow­ing the eco­nomy and giv­ing Amer­ica’s un­em­ployed the in­de­pend­ence that only comes from find­ing a good job.”

Com­prom­ise is hard, es­pe­cially in such a dys­func­tion­al polit­ic­al en­vir­on­ment, but it’s the best course for both polit­ic­al parties and for 1.3 mil­lion Amer­ic­ans.

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