Why Republicans and Democrats Should Compromise to Extend Unemployment Benefits

Without give and take, the GOP looks heartless and the White House looks clueless.

MIAMI, FL - MAY 02: People looking for work stand in line to apply for a job during a job fair at the Miami Dolphins Sun Life stadium on May 2, 2013 in Miami, Florida. If voters approve a hotel tax hike to fund stadium renovations the jobs would be available. If not, the Dolphins management is indicating they would not be able to renovate the stadium nor create the jobs.  (Getty Images)

Republicans risk looking heartless and Democrats clueless in the debate over whether to extend unemployment benefits to 1.3 million chronically jobless Americans. The solution: compromise.

At issue is a bill to provide a three-month extension of government benefits for people who have been out of work for more than six months. This fight is a microcosm of a broader divide over how the U.S. political system should respond to the effects of post-industrial economic change — a knot of issues including flattened upward mobility, wage stagnation, income inequality, and long-term unemployment.

For Republicans, opposing a salve for durably jobless Americans could widen the party's so-called empathy gap. As NBC's First Read reported, exit polls from the 2012 presidential election showed that a majority of voters believed that Mitt Romney's policies favored the rich. In a postelection analysis, GOP leaders said the party "must be the champion of those who seek to climb the economic ladder of life." In 2013, the party sought to cut spending for food stamps and, in many states, opposed expanding Medicaid to provide health insurance to low-income Americans. A recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed the GOP trailing Democrats by 28 points on the issue of "showing passion and concern for people."

At the same time, capitulation would be risky for GOP leaders. Many conservative voters believe unemployment benefits foster dependency on government largesse. In their eyes, unemployed Americans are mostly moochers.

Out of this political dilemma came a GOP proposal: They might allow the bill to get to President Obama's desk if its cost — $6.4 billion over 10 years — is offset by cuts elsewhere in the U.S. budget. As National Journal's Fawn Johnson put it, "It's a conversation shift that makes Democrats nervous. Once your start battling over how to pay for something, legislative talks become a new ball game. Passing the bill is no longer a brute battle of political wills. It's a trading match."

Lawmakers should be nervous. This should be a trading match, not a zero-sum battle, because both sides have merit. Democrats are right: The benefits should be extended. Most unemployed people want to work, but need help from their fellow citizens to survive the gap between hard-to-find jobs. Republicans are right: The nation is $17 trillion in debt, and cuts can be found for this relatively modest expense.

The bill cleared a procedural hurdle in the Senate today with some GOP help. If it passes the Senate it goes to the House, where the Republican opposition is strongest.

So far, the White House insists on extending benefits without offsetting cuts. Obama today argued that such bills have passed Congress by bipartisan votes "with no strings attached," which is true but misleading. He ignored the fact that extensions came with offsets in 2009, 2011, and 2012. Why not now?

A my-way-or-the-highway approach could backfire on congressional Democrats and the White House because most voters grasp the necessity of fiscal responsibility and compromise. Liberal columnist Greg Sargent of The Washington Post urged Democrats to call the bluff of Republicans "by challenging them to support a pay-for that does not undercut the recovery — forcing them to either agree to an extension or reveal that they are prioritizing corporate tax breaks over aid to the jobless."

That is sound advice (though both parties would squabble over which cuts to make). While the hyper-partisan GOP House may not be willing to negotiate, Obama and his fellow Democrats must try. Dare the GOP to reject a compromise. Dare them to widen the empathy gap. After all, Republicans have the most to lose in a fair fight. So make it fair.

"One month ago I personally told the White House that another extension of temporary emergency unemployment benefits should not only be paid for but include something to help put people back to work," House Speaker John Boehner said in a statement. "To date, the president has offered no such plan. If he does, I'll be happy to discuss it, but right now the House is going to remain focused on growing the economy and giving America's unemployed the independence that only comes from finding a good job."

Compromise is hard, especially in such a dysfunctional political environment, but it's the best course for both political parties and for 1.3 million Americans.

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