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.”
How can McConnell and his colleagues justify not supporting unemployment insurance for their own constituents? And how does such cognitive dissonance go unchecked?
This comes after a year in which House Republicans stripped food stamps from the farm bill. GOP governors and state legislators opposed expanding Medicaid to provide health insurance to low-income Americans. And now, in the first few weeks of 2014, House Republicans may refuse to pass benefits for the long-term unemployed.
After the Senate vote, President Obama, speaking at the White House, urged members of the House of Representatives to act promptly. “If this doesn’t get fixed, it will hurt about 14 million Americans over the course of this year: 5 million workers along with 9 million of their family members—their spouses, their kids.”
Offering a human face to the policy, the president spoke of a mother from Connecticut who has two sons serving in the military but is struggling to pay her heating bills. “This is not an abstraction. These are not statistics. These are your neighbors, your friends, your family members. It could at some point be any of us,” the president said.
President Obama even addressed the misguided comments of Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who invoked the old Republican meme of a lazy welfare queen by claiming that an extension of unemployment benefits offered people an incentive to no longer look for work.
“The long-term unemployed are not lazy,” Obama added.
New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker spoke to The Root and reiterated the president’s message by emphasizing families and children.
“Today, there are still three unemployed job seekers for every job available. Now is not the time to make things harder for Americans looking for work.” Booker explained. “Congress has never before allowed special extended-unemployment benefits to expire when the long-term unemployment rate is as high as it is today. Failing to reinstate unemployment insurance is going to hurt families, because about 40 percent of the long-term unemployed live in households with children.”
According to the Congressional Budget Office, not extending unemployment-benefit payments would cost 240,000 jobs. But an extension could potentially create 300,000 jobs. The program essentially pays for itself because of the stimulative effect it has on communities. Families use these resources to buy basic needs like gas, food and clothing.
“So, it's hard out there,” President Obama said. “There are a lot of our friends, a lot of our neighbors who have lost their jobs, and they're working their tails off every single day trying to find a new job. Voting for unemployment insurance helps people and creates jobs, and voting against it does not. Congress should pass this bipartisan plan right away, and I will sign it right away. And more than 1 million Americans across the country will feel a little hope right away. And hope is contagious.”
Hopefully, Republican members of the House will get the memo.
Edward Wyckoff Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, ABC, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.
Edward Wyckoff Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, ABC, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.