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Benefits Debate Is First Volley Of Election Year PDF Print E-mail
Written by Jim Kuhnheen   
Thursday, 09 January 2014 00:00

OFA volunteers rally in West L.A.

WASHINGTON — The struggle in Washington over whether to renew expired job- less benefits for the long-term unemployed is as much about providing aid to 1.3 million out-of-work Americans as it is about drawing the first political line of an election year.

The unexpected vote in the Senate on Tuesday, Jan. 7, to remove one obstacle to a three-month extension of aid OFA volunteers rally in West L.A. attracted the support of six Republicans, illustrating the real- life and political pressures on some GOP lawmakers, includ- ing those from states with un- employment above the national average.

Still, the legislation’s outcome is uncertain as Democrats, backed by the White House, and Republicans remain sharp- ly divided over whether the cost of the $6.4 billion program extension should be added to the deficit or paid for with spending cuts. Senate Majority Leader

Harry Reid, D-Nev., and White House officials indicated they would be receptive to cuts to offset a yearlong renewal of the program, only if Republicans would first agree to restore the benefits for three months without conditions.

The debate fits neatly into a White House strategy to focus much of this year on longstanding economic disparities and draw Republicans into a mid- term fight that Democrats believe they win with the public. Income inequality and the lack of upward mobility will be a central theme of Obama’s State of the Union address later this month — a focus White House officials call Obama’s “driving motivation.”

It could be a tricky emphasis. Even as Obama calls attention to what he perceives as struc- tural economic flaws that have created a chasm between haves and have-nots, he is also trying to emphasize the economy’s recovery from the Great Recession. At the same time, un- employment remains high at 7 percent and the total number of long-term unemployed is 4.1 million, a figure underscored by his call for a renewal of the emergency jobless benefits.

Speaking at the White House on Tuesday, Obama said the nation’s economy is getting stronger, but he conceded “the recovery in a big country like the United States is going to be somewhat uneven.”

What’s more, the White House was observing the 50th anniversary of President Lyn- don Johnson’s War on Poverty with an economic report on Wednesday, Jan. 8, that hails government anti-poverty programs but also blames the lack of progress in reducing pov- erty since the 1980s on rising inequality.

“As every American knows, our work is far from over,” Obama said in a statement marking the anniversary. “In the richest nation on Earth, far too many children are still born into poverty, far too few have a fair shot to escape it, and Americans of all races and backgrounds experience wages and incomes that aren’t rising, making it harder to share in the opportunities a growing economy provides.”

Eager to sustain attention on the economy, Democrats are expected to follow the debate over jobless benefits with a proposal to increase the minimum wage.

The strategy matches a script laid out by Obama’s pollster in November that stressed that the economy remained an overriding voter priority.

At the time, the troubled rollout of Obama’s health care law was dominating the news, but pollster Joel Benenson argued that it was “imperative that we return to the core issues that animate voters’ lives: a desire for financial security.”

The White House distrib- uted the memo to congressional Democrats.

On Tuesday, Senate Minor- ity Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., pounced on Obama and the Democrats and argued that they were complaining about the hardships facing jobless workers “as if somehow there’s no responsibility for that with either the majority in the Sen- ate or the administration.”

While some conservatives have argued that jobless ben- efits stifle the motivation of unemployed people to look for work, most Republicans cast their objections as an issue of fiscal responsibility, making a case that the benefits should be paid for and accusing Obama of not being responsive to their jobs proposals.

Reid argued that after a series of belt-tightening mea- sures, there are few places to trim the budget. "If they come with something that’s serious, I’ll talk to them,” he said. “But right now, everyone should un- derstand the low-hanging fruit is gone.”

The three-month measure before the Senate would restore benefits averaging $256 weekly to an estimated 1.3 million long- term jobless who were cut off when the program expired Dec. 28. The federal coverage gener- ally lasts from 14 to 47 weeks, depending on the level of unemployment within individual states. Without action by Congress, hundreds of thousands more will feel the impact in the months ahead as their state-funded benefits expire, typically after 26 weeks.

The six Republicans who voted to overcome a filibuster were Dean Heller of Nevada, Kelly Ayotte of New Hamp- shire, Dan Coats of Indiana, Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Rob Portman of Ohio.

Heller, Coats and Portman represent states with unemployment above the national aver- age of 7 percent.

Even if Democrats and the White House succeed in push- ing a bill through the Senate, it still faces a challenge in the Republican-controlled House, where Speaker John Boehner made clear he would not rub- ber-stamp a Senate-passed bill. He said he has previously informed the White House that any measure to renew unem- ployment benefits “should not only be paid for but include something to help put people back to work. To date, the presi- dent has offered no such plan.”

“These aren’t folks who are just sitting back, waiting for things to happen,” he said. “They’re out there actively looking for work.”

Rallies in support of extending the benefits were held in Los Angeles and other parts of the country on Jan. 7 by Organizing For Action, an issue ad- vocacy group that grew out of the Obama presidential election campaigns.

Peter Rothenberg, a San Fernando Valley volunteer chapter leader, said the benefits issue “has never gotten into public consciousness because the benefits were cut off Dec. 28, and people were busy with the holidays. The rallies were to make people realize 1.3 million of our fellow Americans lost the unemployment benefits to help them have the money to survive while they search for a job.”

He said he and others anxiously await the Senate to pass an extension.

“I think they could delay the vote in the Senate until they have the votes to get it through. The key stumbling block is the issue of ‘pay-for,’ offsetting the cost of the extension for the unemployment benefits. By that I mean finding something else in the budge to cut,” Rothenberg said.

“The political football aspect of it came into play when the Republicans said just delay ObamaCare for a year. To me the key algebra is if you don’t pay for these unemployment benefits, it will actually cost the country more in the long run because you won’t have these million or so people getting these benefits to help them survive, and find a job.

“The cost of these people not working, and the lost jobs that not extending these benefits will create, is a cost to the economy that many people in Congress are just ignoring, and only thinking of the cost of actually paying for these benefits. In my mind there’s bigger cost of not paying these benefits,” Rothenberg said.


AP Special Correspondent David Espo, and the San Fer- nando Sun/El Sol contributed to this report.

Last Updated on Friday, 10 January 2014 01:34