WASHINGTON — As the Senate struggle over extending benefits for the long-term unemployed heads into another week Monday, both political parties are using the issue — the first big domestic battle of the 2014 election year — to establish agendas they’ll be touting throughout this election year and beyond.
Democrats say the benefits, which expired for about 1.3 million people Dec. 28, are an emergency and don’t need to be paid for. Stop being heartless, they implore Republicans — real people are suffering.
Republicans counter that the debate highlights two of their favorite political points: Deficit spending has gone on too long and has to be stopped now. And the emergency that spawned this benefit program, which helps to provide up to a total of 73 weeks of aid in some states, has waned.
The stalemate is rooted in the political numbers. Polls show the parties’ bases — the people who are most likely to vote in midterm elections — support their party’s position.
Democrats are more united than Republicans. A Jan. 4-7 Quinnipiac University poll found that 54 percent of Republicans said Congress should not approve a three-month extension, while 83 percent of Democrats said Congress should OK the plan.
The issue could resonate in November. By more than 2-to-1, Republicans were less likely to support someone backing the extension. Democrats were more likely, by nearly a 10-to-1 margin, to vote for a candidate who got behind more benefits. Republicans are “hesitant to keep financially supporting those out of the labor force beyond their original benefits,” said Timothy Malloy, a Quinnipiac analyst.
Interest groups are helping push the agendas. Americans United for Change, a liberal group, launched a national ad featuring three people who lost benefits last month. “Republicans continue to ignore their struggle,” the ad says.
Among conservatives, the Club for Growth sent an advisory to supporters urging a no vote. “After six years, an extension can no longer be called an ‘emergency’ with any credibility,” the club said. “There is plenty of waste in the federal budget from which to find an offset.”
Fueled by this partisan ire, the Senate spent its first week of 2014 in a bruising fight over the extension. A vote is scheduled Monday on cutting off debate on a Democratic alternative that would fund 11 months of reduced benefits by extending certain automatic spending cuts an additional year, until 2014. It’s uncertain if supporters can get the 60 votes they need.
The fight has become personal as well as political.
“There’s a new harshness on the part of our Republican colleagues,” said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, a 30-year Senate veteran who is not seeking re-election this year. “They’re so fixed on this austerity and this deficit they can’t realize human beings are in trouble.”
No, say Republicans, it’s Democrats who want to prolong this debate, as a way of trying to convince the public Republicans are cruel.
“Most Americans like paying for things. I don’t see what’s wrong with that,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
Republicans maintain Democrats are dragging out this drama as long as they can. Look, Republicans said, we’re being reasonable. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, reiterated last week his long-held view he’d consider more benefits if they were paid for.
There was some glimmer of hope a week ago, when six Republican senators joined 52 Democrats and two independents to overcome a key procedural hurdle allowing debate to proceed.
But three of those Republicans warned that if they were to take the next step toward passage, they wanted an offset. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he’d be willing to consider a serious plan.
Sen. Dan Coats of Indiana was one of the Republicans who went along with Democrats on Monday, and he offered several potential offsets. By the end of the week, he was disgusted as his ideas were not considered. “I am representing the people of Indiana and their voice is shut down,” he told Reid.
Republicans fretted that Democrats really didn’t want a deal right away so they could rail against opponents. “They really don’t have any endgame,” Graham charged.
Democrats maintained they were playing no game but were trying to ease an intolerable situation. They warned that Republicans will pay a political price.
“It’s a different America, it’s a different political structure than it was even a year ago,” said Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, the chairman of the Senate Democratic Policy Committee. “Issues like the deficit and Obamacare are important, but helping average people, getting the economy going and creating jobs is now number one.”