Unemployed Still Have a Shot to Get Benefits Back

In a shocking turn, six Republicans voted with Democrats to bring a benefits-extension bill to a full debate in the Senate.

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President Barack Obama listens to Katherine Hackett of Moodus, Conn., speak about extending emergency-unemployment benefits in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., Jan. 7, 2014.

NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

It seems that congressional Republicans—or some, at least—are finally coming to the realization that their constituents are poor and unemployed.

On Tuesday the U.S. Senate voted to move forward with the bill that would extend unemployment benefits, which expired three days after Christmas. It provides benefits to roughly 1.3 million eligible workers for three months, costing roughly $6.5 billion. The bill now heads to the Senate for a full debate and vote.

Six Republicans joined the Democratic majority for a roll call vote of 60 to 37. One of those Republicans was the bill's co-sponsor, Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada, which has the highest unemployment rate in the country at 9 percent. 

GOP leaders have tried to frame unemployment insurance as an undeserved welfare benefit. This tactic makes it easier for party members to not support an extension and instead demand that the benefits be paid for in advance, while the GOP summarily attack President Obama as a big-spending liberal socialist.

Their constituents disagree.

A recent Public Policy Poll found that an overwhelming majority of Republican voters supported extending unemployment benefits and disapproved of House Republicans allowing the benefits to expire. In fact, in House Speaker John Boehner's home district, a majority of voters (63 percent to 34 percent) said they want unemployment benefits extended. And 52 percent of Republican voters overall supported it.

After losing the 2012 presidential election, Republicans seemed to acknowledge that they needed a change in both messaging and strategy. The Republican National Committee’s official response to Mitt Romney’s loss was that they must learn to “champion those who seek to climb the economic ladder.”

But some in the GOP didn’t get the memo.

Last week, Republican Sens. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson of Georgia, Rob Portman of Ohio and Roger Wicker of Mississippi indicated that they would vote against the proposal to extend unemployment benefits. Staying true to their word, they did exactly that today. The two senators from Mississippi—notoriously the poorest state in the union and currently averaging an 8.3 percent unemployment rate—also voted against extending unemployment benefits. But curiously, these are all senators from states with the highest unemployment rates in the country.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell hails from Kentucky, where the 2013 unemployment rate exceeded the national average—8.2 percent versus 7 percent. McConnell himself, in a widely reported speech he made in in August of 2013, referred to unemployment conditions of rural Kentuckyians as a “depression, not a recession.”

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