Political Sparring Over Unemployment Insurance Reaches New Heights

Or is a fight over a hearing room a new low?

WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 06: House Democratic Whip Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD) speaks at an event hosted by the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee in front of the U.S. Capitol May 6, 2014 in Washington, DC. The event featured personal stories told by Americans whose unemployment benefits have expired due to the lack of an extension by Congress.
National Journal
Sarah Mimms
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Sarah Mimms
May 6, 2014, 12:59 p.m.

The on­go­ing con­gres­sion­al fight over un­em­ploy­ment-in­sur­ance be­ne­fits grew even tenser — and a little more petty — this week.

The par­tis­an bick­er­ing over the is­sue reached a new high Tues­day morn­ing, as House Demo­crats pre­pared to rake Re­pub­lic­ans over the coals with an­oth­er hear­ing packed with stor­ies from the long-term un­em­ployed, just as they did just be­fore the pro­gram ex­pired on Dec. 28. The hear­ings are de­signed to put more pres­sure on House Speak­er John Boehner to bring an ex­ten­sion to the floor.

But after a series of room changes were sent out to the press over the past week, Demo­crats de­clared that Re­pub­lic­ans were pre­vent­ing them from hold­ing the hear­ing. A re­lease from House Minor­ity Lead­er Nancy Pelosi’s of­fice ac­cused Re­pub­lic­ans of “kick­ing House Demo­crats out of a room” where they had sched­uled the hear­ing and try­ing “to si­lence the voices of Amer­ic­ans who lost un­em­ploy­ment in­sur­ance.” Pelosi’s of­fice an­nounced that Demo­crats would hold a press con­fer­ence out­doors in­stead.

But that’s not the whole story, Re­pub­lic­ans say. “The minor­ity of­fice re­ques­ted the use of a com­mit­tee hear­ing room space that they billed as a mem­ber meet­ing that would not in­clude press,” House Edu­ca­tion and the Work­force Com­mit­tee spokes­wo­man Al­ex­an­dra Soll­ber­ger said in an email.

A copy of the re­quest, provided to Na­tion­al Journ­al by Soll­ber­ger, shows that the of­fice of Rep. George Miller, D-Cal­if., re­ques­ted the room for a mem­bers-only event and noted that press would not be in­vited. The Edu­ca­tion and Work­force Com­mit­tee then presen­ted Demo­crats with a doc­u­ment that ex­pli­citly pro­hib­ited the use of the dais, mi­cro­phones, and wit­ness tables — all key ele­ments of a typ­ic­al hear­ing — dur­ing their pro­posed meet­ing. A Demo­crat­ic staffer signed it.

“At the last minute, the Demo­crats changed sig­ni­fic­antly the format of their event that no longer com­plies with the terms to which they ori­gin­ally agreed. At no time did we deny their re­quest to hold an event,” Soll­ber­ger said. “In fact, we have com­mu­nic­ated to Demo­crat staff that we are more than will­ing to ac­com­mod­ate the event they now wish to hold — all they have to do is ask.”

Soll­ber­ger went on to char­ac­ter­ize the Demo­crats’ out­rage Tues­day morn­ing as “par­tis­an polit­ic­al shenanigans at its best.”

The term “par­tis­an” caught many Demo­crat­ic ears. “This isn’t a par­tis­an is­sue,” said Ju­lia Krahe, a spokes­wo­man for Demo­crats on the com­mit­tee. “It can’t just be Demo­crats that are un­em­ployed.”

Demo­crats said they emailed back-and-forth with Re­pub­lic­ans, spe­cify­ing that they would hold a hear­ing with the press in the room, but did not file an amended hear­ing room re­quest form. Demo­crats fur­ther noted that they once held an al­most identic­al hear­ing in Decem­ber in a Ray­burn hear­ing room, us­ing mi­cro­phones and the dais, without a Re­pub­lic­an back­lash.

In the midst of the up­roar Tues­day morn­ing, Re­pub­lic­ans offered to let Demo­crats use the hear­ing room and its equip­ment any­way, but Pelosi spokes­man Drew Ham­mill said it was too late. “They have today, after we’ve thrown a pub­lic fit, now said that we can use the room, but we’ve already moved cam­er­as and things like that,” Ham­mill said, adding that C-SPAN, CNN, and oth­er net­works had already be­gun set­ting up on the front steps of the Cap­it­ol for the press con­fer­ence.

“Yeah, you made al­tern­ate ar­range­ments to make this a big press thing, but really this is a pa­per­work is­sue,” Soll­ber­ger said of Demo­crats. “Bot­tom line is, we’re happy to ac­com­mod­ate what they want, but they just have to ask for what they want.”

Boehner spokes­man Mi­chael Steel char­ac­ter­ized the event as “faux out­rage on the Cap­it­ol steps.”

The back-and-forth between the parties over the hear­ing room ended up draw­ing more at­ten­tion to the Demo­crat­ic press con­fer­ence than usu­al. This brought an in­creased me­dia fo­cus to an is­sue that hasn’t got­ten much at­ten­tion since the Sen­ate passed an un­em­ploy­ment-in­sur­ance ex­ten­sion bill early last month. And Demo­crats were not go­ing to let the op­por­tun­ity go to waste.

Amid speeches by Demo­crat­ic law­makers de­cry­ing un­fair treat­ment by the Re­pub­lic­an ma­jor­ity, a series of un­em­ployed in­di­vidu­als took to the mi­cro­phones, each seem­ingly with a more emo­tion­al story of struggle than the last. Helene Laur­usav­age, an Air Force vet­er­an with a de­gree in phys­ics, has used up all her sav­ings and has no money to pay her mort­gage next month. Kev­in Mc­Carthy (no re­la­tion to the House ma­jor­ity whip), a former Na­tion­al Guards­man, choked up as he de­scribed how his 17-year-old daugh­ter told him she wor­ried she was a bur­den to the fam­ily as he struggles to find work. And Jeanne Keane talked about tak­ing in her daugh­ter and aut­ist­ic grand­son and go­ing on food stamps.

The sev­en speak­ers each said they had sent out between 200 and 300 ap­plic­a­tions since los­ing their jobs; many had worked in their fields for dec­ades and held de­grees.

But the polit­ics of the mo­ment de­trac­ted from those stor­ies.

Pelosi closed the press con­fer­ence on the sunny steps of the Cap­it­ol by re­turn­ing to the hear­ing-room de­bacle. “Un­for­tu­nately, our Re­pub­lic­an col­leagues in the Con­gress are in deni­al about this situ­ation. When I asked them, why don’t you give us a vote, be­cause the votes are there to pass the ex­ten­sion of un­em­ploy­ment in­sur­ance?” she said. “They say these people are not look­ing for work, so we’re not go­ing to give them this ex­ten­sion. They are in deni­al. In fact, they don’t even want to hear the truth. That’s why they kicked us out of the Ray­burn room and wouldn’t let these stor­ies be told.”

Des­pite the at­ten­tion drawn by the dus­tup, Re­pub­lic­ans ap­pear un­moved. “If House Demo­crats didn’t use the event today to an­nounce a plan that is fisc­ally re­spons­ible and in­cludes meas­ures to boost private-sec­tor job cre­ation, it wasn’t help­ful,” Steel said.

If Tues­day’s events proved any­thing, it’s that both sides are even more en­trenched in their po­s­i­tions on un­em­ploy­ment in­sur­ance than they were in Decem­ber. And that doesn’t provide much hope for the fu­ture of the le­gis­la­tion.

Up­date: This story has been up­dated to re­flect the fact that Demo­crats say they dis­cussed amend­ing the hear­ing room re­quest form with Re­pub­lic­ans via e-mail, but did not make a form­al re­quest or sub­mit an amended form, as pre­vi­ously stated.

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