A Long Unemployment Benefits Debate Could Be Just The Distraction Democrats Need

“Is unemployment insurance going to turn an election? No. But it’s helping drive the conversation away from Obamacare,” one national Democrat said.

Larry Downing / Reuters

WASHINGTON — With control of the Senate hanging in the balance Democrats are looking for every advantage they can get, and a drawn out battle over unemployment benefits might help sway the needle in their favor.

After a disastrous start to the Obamacare era, Senate Democrats facing tough midterm battles have had to fight off constant attacks from the right. On par with the Obama administration’s renewed focus on income inequality, some experts say a pivot to their efforts on unemployment could prove vital.

And while the fate of an extension in the Senate remains unclear, it faces an even tougher battle if it does make it to the Republican-controlled House.

“Is unemployment insurance going to turn an election? No. But it’s helping drive the conversation away from Obamacare,” one national Democrat said.

The Emergency Unemployment Compensation program provides extended relief for long-term unemployed job seekers whose state benefits have run out.

The upper chamber has voted for several different plans to extend federal benefits for the long-term unemployed, but each has failed to garner the 60 votes needed to clear a procedural hurdle. The most recent attempt, a three-month extension with costs offset by pension smoothing, only needed one more Republican vote to pass.

Meanwhile, political posturing has turned the issue more into a war over words and procedure than a debate over policy or economics.

Though Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has brought several different plans to the floor, Republicans claim he isn’t letting their voices be heard. Much of their complaints, on the floor and off, come from Reid’s refusal to allow votes on GOP amendments.

“We’ve virtually got everything the Republicans asked,” Reid said Thursday, referring to the inclusion of a provision suggested by Sen. Tom Coburn that prevents millionaires from receiving the benefits. “They’ll come up with a lot of excuses why we can’t do this, they want amendments…that is just a lost leader.”

“There are other pay-for ideas, there are reforms,” Sen. Mitch McConnell’s spokesman Don Stewart told BuzzFeed in an email Tuesday. “But beyond all that, the fact that Reid gets to decide which ONE bill gets a vote and that no one else gets an opportunity to have amendments is at the heart of this whole thing. We could have been done months ago.”

Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist and former spokesman for Reid, said blaming Reid for not playing fair won’t resonate too far beyond the walls of the Capitol.

“That kind of inside baseball stuff doesn’t play well with the Republicans at large,” he said. “What will resonate is that Democrats are demanding a modest extension and Republicans are opposed to it, at least to date.”

So far Democrats have offered a gamut of plans to extend the benefits, which expired Dec. 28. They’ve included a flat three-month extension without any cost offsets, the recent three-month extension offset by pension smoothing and an extension that would’ve lasted into November, but offsetting it with sequester cuts in 2024 didn’t cut it for the GOP.

On it’s face the question is simple: Should the long-term unemployed be subsidized by the federal government if they can’t find work, but are trying? Democrats argue they should. The Republican consensus is a little more vague — they don’t want to be callous towards those looking for work but they don’t want the benefits to add to the debt either.

The economics of it are even murkier as the debate gets boggled down in macro and micro economic jargon. A December report from the White House’s Council of Economic Advisers predicted allowing the unemployment benefits to expire would cost the economy 240,000 jobs in 2014.

But a separate independent study, which was referenced in the CEA report, predicted the negative effect on the labor force would outweigh job creation. In their response to the CEA, the study’s authors, who come from the University of Pennsylvania and the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, predicted that reinstating the benefits would ultimately lead to 2 million fewer jobs.

Nevertheless, Republicans remain unconvinced Democrats can avoid the ill effects of Obamacare by talking about unemployment benefits.

“The challenge for Democrats is that Obamacare is negatively impacting millions of Americans by taking more money out of their wallets and restricting access to their doctors. Trying to use unemployment insurance as a distraction only reminds voters exactly how bad the economy is and that Obama’s promises for change came up empty,” Republican strategist Ron Bonjean said. “The strategy is also designed to play to their liberal base who aren’t thrilled with Obama’s lack of progress during his presidency.”

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