When Congress voted last Friday to extend the payroll-tax cut and unemployment insurance for the rest of the year, it was seen as a win for President Obama. The measure, which passed along bipartisan lines, involved little of the congressional squabbling that normally arises around his agenda. Likely to avoid the appearance of voting against an extra $40 per paycheck for the average working American, Republicans retreated on this particular fight. And at a White House event on Tuesday, President Obama took a victory lap.
Flanked by Americans who answered the president's call to let Congress know what $40 a paycheck means to them, he thanked the public for the extended tax cut and unemployment benefits. "This got done because of you; because you called, you emailed, you tweeted your representatives and you demanded action," Obama said. "And because you did, no working American is going to see their taxes go up this year … Because of what you did, millions of Americans who are out there still looking for work are going to continue to get help with unemployment insurance."
During his remarks, President Obama briefly noted that both sides of the aisle made compromises in order to pass the bill. But some of those compromises — cutting the maximum length for unemployment insurance from 99 to 73 weeks, requiring new federal workers to contribute more to their retirement, cutting the Affordable Care Act by more than $11 billion and allowing states to drug-test people applying for unemployment insurance — drove 41 House Democrats to vote against the bill.
"Time and time again, the Republican leadership has asked a single group of Americans to bear the burden of reducing the deficit," said Congressional Black Caucus Chair Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), who voted against the bill, along with 13 other CBC members. "Federal employees have already sacrificed $60 billion through pay freezes, toward reducing our deficit. This is a clear assault on our public servants."
In her explanation for her "nay" vote, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) said, "This bill makes significant cuts to struggling families. Instead of scaling back unemployment benefits, we need to be adding weeks to help people get by when there continues to be four workers in line for each job."
Adding to the chorus of opposition was Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), who said, "I do not want to endorse the idea that it is OK to take from some middle-class workers to meet our obligations to others, while asking nothing from Wall Street bankers and the super rich."
Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.) added, "It undermines the federal government's ability to recruit and hire a talented workforce, makes unemployment benefits harder to extend for the millions of Americans who rely on them during difficult economic times and brings us no closer to a responsible approach to deficit reduction."
Most of the CBC members who voted against Friday's legislation stressed that it was a difficult choice. After all, the primary provisions of extending the payroll-tax cuts and unemployment benefits, as well as preventing cuts in Medicare-reimbursement rates to doctors, were measures that they supported. But the costs to get there, they say, were too much.
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Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.