Why Democrats Will Win on Unemployment Insurance

Repeated votes for extension fit into the party's platform, but just as importantly, they allow Harry Reid and his caucus to bash Republicans over and over.
Yuri Gripas/Reuters

For the fifth time this year, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid brought an unemployment-insurance extension to the floor last week, 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 December 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 partyand 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 break a Republican filibuster and pass the extension—they reached 59 (not counting Reid's procedural switch) for the first time during a vote last 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 Americansand, importantly, an equal number of independentssupport 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 issuesin 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.

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Sarah Mimms is a staff writer for National Journal Hotline.

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