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 party—and 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 Americans—and, importantly, an equal number of independents—support 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 issues—in 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.

He told that same story three separate times on Thursday, an indication of just how heavily Democrats plan to push that personal messaging this year.

Republicans argue that they don't oppose unemployment insurance in general and are trying to find a path forward. They blame Reid for refusing to compromise. Their objections are twofold. First, it must be paid for. But, second, Senate Republicans want to have a chance at an open amendment process.

"Well, of course this is not about trying to find a solution; it's about trying to create an issue," Senator John Cornyn, who chaired the National Republican Senatorial Committee last cycle, said Thursday. "But I think we've demonstrated that it's Senator Reid who has foreclosed any debate or improvement of the legislation in a way that will actually help the unemployed … in terms of improving job training and access to things like Pell Grants and other funding that would actually help people acquire the skills that would help them qualify for a good, high-paying job."

It's a procedural issue that has many of GOP members up in arms about the way Reid is running the Senate, but may not translate as well to an electoral message as, say, a woman selling her earthly possessions so she can go to job interviews.

Still, the amendment process seems to be the prevailing objection for Senate Republicans, and it helps explain why a three-month unemployment insurance that was fully paid for was opposed by 40 members of the party on Thursday.

Reid did offer to allow Republicans to attach a handful of amendments to the bill last month, but because he would still have the power to choose which amendments would be included, Republicans rejected it.

Senator Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican who supported the paid-for version of the unemployment-insurance extension Thursday said after the vote that Democrats are unlikely to attract any more votes from her caucus unless they open up the process, implying that some Republicans are opposing the unemployment-insurance benefits on procedural grounds alone.

She also pointed to the fact that she and seven other Republican members—far more votes than Reid would need to pass the extension—introduced a fix last month that has so far gone nowhere. The proposal would have paid for the extension by preventing beneficiaries from also taking Social Security benefits. Additionally, it would have repealed the unpopular cuts to military pensions included in December's budget agreement.

"If he's really serious about addressing this," Murkowski said of Reid, "he's got a plan out there that has at least enough Republicans on to advance it and more likely more than he needs. So the answer's right there for him. Hopefully, he'll take it up."

But Murkowski seemed doubtful, noting that Reid continues to bring measures to the floor that the majority of her caucus cannot support.

"Maybe he's feeling that the optics are better for Democrats if they can say, 'Republicans don't care,'" Murkowski said. "That's unfortunate because we do care and we've got a proposal and we've got a plan that demonstrates that we do."