Why Democrats Will Win on Unemployment Insurance

Hint: It has little to do with poor people.

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 17: U.S. Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) speaks to members of the media after the weekly Senate Democratic Policy Committee luncheon December 17, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Senate Democrats held the weekly luncheon to discuss Democratic agenda.
National Journal
Sarah Mimms
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Sarah Mimms
Feb. 7, 2014, midnight

For the fifth time this year, Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id brought an un­em­ploy­ment-in­sur­ance ex­ten­sion to the floor on Thursday, even though sev­er­al mem­bers of his party ad­mit­ted that they didn’t have the votes to pass it.

They came close. But more im­port­ant for Demo­crat­ic cam­paign op­er­at­ives across the coun­try, they once again got Re­pub­lic­ans on the re­cord op­pos­ing as­sist­ance for the long-term un­em­ployed.

Al­though Demo­crats have been crow­ing about the im­port­ance of passing an ex­ten­sion since the be­ne­fits ex­pired on Dec. 28, the party has been hes­it­ant to make con­ces­sions to Re­pub­lic­ans to ac­quire more of their votes.

That is not to say that Demo­crats hope the le­gis­la­tion fails. Passing an un­em­ploy­ment-in­sur­ance ex­ten­sion would be great news for their party — and the 1.6 mil­lion Amer­ic­ans now liv­ing without sup­port. Think of it as a win-win situ­ation.

The party is fa­cing little pres­sure to cave to Re­pub­lic­ans, who are ask­ing Demo­crats to pay for the ex­ten­sion for only the second time in the pro­gram’s his­tory. In­stead, as each week passes, Demo­crats seem to be get­ting closer to the 60 votes they’ll need to pass the ex­ten­sion — they reached 59 (not count­ing Re­id’s pro­ced­ur­al switch) for the first time dur­ing a vote on Thursday — and Demo­crats are hope­ful that if they hold out a little longer, they’ll get the votes.

But more sig­ni­fic­ant, as they pre­pare for an elec­tion in which they plan to run on in­come in­equal­ity and im­prov­ing the middle class, the more times Re­pub­lic­ans vote against an ex­ten­sion of pop­u­lar be­ne­fits for un­em­ployed in­di­vidu­als, or the House re­fuses to take up the is­sue, the bet­ter.

The Demo­crat­ic Con­gres­sion­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee on Wed­nes­day blas­ted out a CBS News polls show­ing that 65 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans — and, im­port­antly, an equal num­ber of in­de­pend­ents — sup­port ex­tend­ing un­em­ploy­ment in­sur­ance be­ne­fits.

With Re­pub­lic­ans vot­ing against the is­sue or avoid­ing it al­to­geth­er, while sim­ul­tan­eously “spend­ing a full day de­bat­ing new re­stric­tions to wo­men’s health,” one na­tion­al Demo­crat­ic op­er­at­ive said, that fits in well with the party’s broad­er elect­or­al mes­sage.

Na­tion­al Demo­crat­ic strategists are already mes­saging on the un­em­ploy­ment is­sue in key races across the coun­try, set­ting up an even lar­ger fight over what the op­er­at­ive termed “middle-class se­cur­ity” — that will in­clude rais­ing the min­im­um wage and oth­er is­sues — in the fall.

Re­id offered a pre­view of the Demo­crat­ic mes­saging on the is­sue Thursday, telling the story of a 57-year-old wo­man from Nevada who has been forced to couch-surf while she looks for a job.

“[She has] worked from the time she was 18 years old. She’s lost her job; she can’t find a job. She’s a long-term un­em­ployed [per­son].”¦ She sold everything she has ex­cept her clunker of a car, all her per­son­al things. She did that so, madam pres­id­ent, she could buy gas in case she gets an in­ter­view. People are just like this in every state. Our job is to do right by them. All we need is one more Re­pub­lic­an vote to step up, do the right thing, and cross the aisle,” Re­id said on the Sen­ate floor.

He told that same story three sep­ar­ate times on Thursday, an in­dic­a­tion of just how heav­ily Demo­crats plan to push that per­son­al mes­saging this year.

Re­pub­lic­ans ar­gue that they don’t op­pose un­em­ploy­ment in­sur­ance in gen­er­al and are try­ing to find a path for­ward. They blame Re­id for re­fus­ing to com­prom­ise. Their ob­jec­tions are two­fold. First, it must be paid for. But, second, Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans want to have a chance at an open amend­ment pro­cess.

“Well, of course this is not about try­ing to find a solu­tion; it’s about try­ing to cre­ate an is­sue,” Sen. John Cornyn, who chaired the Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Sen­at­ori­al Com­mit­tee last cycle, said Thursday. “But I think we’ve demon­strated that it’s Sen. Re­id who has fore­closed any de­bate or im­prove­ment of the le­gis­la­tion in a way that will ac­tu­ally help the un­em­ployed “¦ in terms of im­prov­ing job train­ing and ac­cess to things like Pell Grants and oth­er fund­ing that would ac­tu­ally help people ac­quire the skills that would help them qual­i­fy for a good, high-pay­ing job.”

It’s a pro­ced­ur­al is­sue that has many of GOP mem­bers up in arms about the way Re­id is run­ning the Sen­ate, but may not trans­late as well to an elect­or­al mes­sage as, say, a wo­man selling her earthly pos­ses­sions so she can go to job in­ter­views.

Still, the amend­ment pro­cess seems to be the pre­vail­ing ob­jec­tion for Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans, and it helps ex­plain why a three-month un­em­ploy­ment in­sur­ance that was fully paid for was op­posed by 40 mem­bers of the party on Thursday.

Re­id did of­fer to al­low Re­pub­lic­ans to at­tach a hand­ful of amend­ments to the bill last month, but be­cause he would still have the power to choose which amend­ments would be in­cluded, Re­pub­lic­ans re­jec­ted it.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who sup­por­ted the paid-for ver­sion of the un­em­ploy­ment in­sur­ance ex­ten­sion that was up on Thursday said after the vote that Demo­crats are un­likely to at­tract any more votes from her caucus un­less they open up the pro­cess, im­ply­ing that some Re­pub­lic­ans are op­pos­ing the un­em­ploy­ment-in­sur­ance be­ne­fits on pro­ced­ur­al grounds alone.

She also poin­ted to the fact that she and sev­en oth­er Re­pub­lic­an mem­bers — far more votes than Re­id would need to pass the ex­ten­sion — in­tro­duced a fix last month that has so far gone nowhere. The pro­pos­al would have paid for the ex­ten­sion by pre­vent­ing be­ne­fi­ciar­ies from also tak­ing So­cial Se­cur­ity be­ne­fits. Ad­di­tion­ally, it would have re­pealed the un­pop­u­lar cuts to mil­it­ary pen­sions in­cluded in Decem­ber’s budget agree­ment.

“If he’s really ser­i­ous about ad­dress­ing this,” Murkowski said of Re­id, “he’s got a plan out there that has at least enough Re­pub­lic­ans on to ad­vance it and more likely more than he needs. So the an­swer’s right there for him. Hope­fully, he’ll take it up.”

But Murkowski seemed doubt­ful, not­ing that Re­id con­tin­ues to bring meas­ures to the floor that the ma­jor­ity of her caucus can­not sup­port.

“Maybe he’s feel­ing that the op­tics are bet­ter for Demo­crats if they can say, ‘Re­pub­lic­ans don’t care,’ ” Murkowski said. “That’s un­for­tu­nate be­cause we do care and we’ve got a pro­pos­al and we’ve got a plan that demon­strates that we do.”

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