Democrats: Unemployment insurance extension a moral debate
December 1, 2010 for AOL Politics Daily
by Josh Lederman
WASHINGTON — Congressional Democrats on Wednesday stood with more than 100 jobless workers in an attempt to drum up public outrage after Republicans prevented an extension of federal unemployment benefits for millions of Americans who are out of work.
“Has the Republican leadership in Congress lost all sense of justice?” asked Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa. “Where is the sense of moral outrage?” he said during a news conference that resembled a revival meeting, with audience members interjecting, cheering and chanting, “Pass it now.”
Two million Americans, plus their spouses and children, will face the holiday season with no income if benefits are not extended, said Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, and by spring that number could increase to 6 million. Solis cited a Bush-era Labor Department study showing that every dollar of unemployment insurance spent generates two dollars in the economy, and said that federal benefits have never been ended during a recession where unemployment was so high.
With the unemployment rate at 9.6 percent, Democrats argue that jobless Americans are suffering due to no fault of their own, and that any benefits paid out directly stimulate the economy. State-administered unemployment insurance provides benefits for up to 26 weeks, but the federal government can extend it for up to 99 weeks, and routinely does so during economic hardship. Congress has passed eight such extensions during the current economic downturn, most recently in July, but missed the Tuesday deadline to pass another extension.
But Republicans have blocked multiple attempts to extend benefits, most recently Wednesday morning, arguing that since they aren’t paid for with spending cuts, they add to the deficit. Democrats call that hypocrisy, since Republicans are insisting on an extension of tax cuts for wealthy Americans without paying for it – at a cost of $700 billion over ten years.
Pelosi drew a contrast between that number and the $18 billion she said extending unemployment benefits would cost.
“We have to pay for unemployment insurance, we don’t have to pay for tax cuts for the rich,” Pelosi said, summing up the Republican argument. “Tax cuts do not create jobs. They haven’t throughout the Bush administration. Unemployment insurance creates jobs and does not add to the deficit.”
Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., told MSNBC Monday (the same day he was sworn in to President Barack Obama’s old Senate seat) that Republicans do appreciate the importance of assisting Americans who can’t find work.
“As long as they [benefits] are paid for,” he said. “Proposals that extend benefits but just add the bill to the deficit take us in the direction of Greece and Ireland that are now imploding as economies.”
Meanwhile, Republican Sen. Scott Brown, facing pressure from constituents in Democrat-friendly Massachusetts, was floating an alternative proposal the morning after he blocked the Democrats’ bill in the Senate.
“The compromise bill I introduced last night would extend unemployment benefits for one year without raising taxes or adding to the national debt, and it would be paid for by using unspent federal funds, some of which have been sitting around of years,” Brown said in a video released Wednesday. Brown’s plan enlists the help of the Office of Management and Budget to identify unspent funds, but does not include specifics on where those loose dollars are.
It’s unclear what the next move is for either Republican or Democratic proposals. Rep. Steny Hoyer, the No. 2 Democrat in the House, told reporters Wednesday his party is discussing the best way forward, and reiterated the Democratic message that extending unemployment is a moral – not political – obligation.
Yet congressional leaders have limited time left in the lame duck session to make decisions on numerous looming issues competing for congressional attention. Among them are the Bush-era tax cuts, set to expire at the year’s end, the START treaty, and legislation to fund the federal government.
“Let’s serve notice: We’re not going to leave this town until we extend unemployment compensation,” said Michigan Democratic Rep. Sander Levin, who chairs the Ways and Means Committee. “Anybody who doesn’t vote for unemployment compensation doesn’t deserve to work in the U.S. Capitol.”
Levin’s notice was a direct rebuke to Senate Republicans, who sent a letter to Majority Leader Harry Reid Wednesday pledging to halt all action in the Senate until Democrats cow to Republican’s legislative priorities, such as extending tax cuts for all Americans – including the wealthy.
“Basically what it means is first things first,” Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the Senate floor Wednesday. “Republicans have pleaded with Democrats to put aside their wish list, to focus on the things Americans want us to focus on. They’ve ignored us. The voters repudiated their agenda at the polls. They’ve ignored them.”