WASHINGTON – A Senate vote on Monday to advance legislation extending emergency unemployment benefits is part of a broader agenda Democrats are rolling out in hopes of bolstering their fortunes in the November mid-term elections.
The party heads into the new year with a program focusing on income inequality, including efforts to raise the minimum wage and boost federal spending on infrastructure projects to create jobs. Those issues will take precedence over President Barack Obama’s troubled health care rollout and the looming battles over the budget deficit. The president appeared to endorse the strategy by using his weekly address to call for an extension of unemployment benefits.
“Our politics are changing” from deficits and Obamacare to jobs and the economy, New York Senator Charles Schumer, the No. 3 Democrat, said in a conference call with reporters yesterday. “These types of issues will now supersede them as incomes decline and unemployment persists.”
Following a two-year budget deal reached late last year that diffuses the partisan fiscal battles that have dominated Congress, both parties are focusing their campaign messaging on the struggling U.S. economy and how to help workers. Senator Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat, and Republican Dean Heller of Nevada have sponsored a bill to extend emergency benefits that expired on Dec. 28 for three months for the 1.3 million Americans classified as long-term unemployed.
“If Republicans block this renewal, I think it will have an effect and hurt their chances in the 2014 elections,” Schumer said. “In the past, this has been a bipartisan issue that’s had the support of mainstream Republicans,” like former President George W. Bush, said Schumer.
Bush presided over the establishment of emergency extended benefits in 2008, when the national jobless rate was 5.6 percent, compared with 7 percent today.
House Speaker John Boehner has said he’s willing to negotiate as long as Democrats pay for the bill, which currently contains no funding provisions. It’s unclear whether Democrats have the votes to prevent Republicans from blocking the legislation, which is intended to help jobless people after they exhausted state benefits, typically lasting six months.