Dems threaten budget deal

Lauren Schneiderman

The budget deal worked out by House and Senate negotiators is on the verge of unraveling over the exclusion of federal unemployment benefits, several leading Democrats warned Wednesday.

The lawmakers are outraged by a GOP move to add the Medicare “doc fix” to the package but not a continuation of unemployment benefits — a strategy they say could sink the entire package by scaring away Democratic votes.

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Reps. Chris Van Hollen (Md.) and Sandy Levin (Mich.) said the move creates a “new dynamic” undermining Democratic support for the plan announced Tuesday by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.). 

“I think it puts at risk the whole bill, and it surely puts at risk my vote,” said Levin, the top Democrat at the House Ways and Means Committee.

Van Hollen echoed that message.

“This does now add a new dynamic that could upset the applecart that could put at risk the budget agreement,” he said.

It's not clear whether Democrats would sink the first bipartisan budget deal in years over the unemployment insurance (UI) issue. But with GOP leaders intent on leaving town on Friday — and with GOP leaders showing little appetite to extend the benefits before they expire on Dec. 28 — the Democrats' only real leverage is to threaten to do so.

“Obviously, once the budget passes you don't have much leverage in terms of votes on things that remain,” House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said Wednesday. “That may be the last vehicle.”

Some Democrats on Wednesday morning appeared poised to back the Ryan-Murray budget agreement. But they also cautioned that the addition of the Medicare language without a UI extension could erode that support. 

“It's something we should do, but why wouldn't we do unemployment insurance if we're doing that?” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) asked Wednesday morning after a meeting of her caucus in the Capitol.

Van Hollen has endorsed the underlying budget agreement, but said he found it “unconscionable” that Republicans would add the “doc fix” — Medicare's sustainable growth rate — to the bill without considering a three-month extension of federal jobless benefits. 

That language was added during a Wednesday afternoon hearing of the House Rules Committee, where GOP leaders shot down a UI extension offered by Levin.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Wednesday that he would push to renew unemployment insurance when lawmakers returned next year.

But many House Democrats say the budget deal remains their best shot to get the benefits extended — and that lawmakers shouldn’t let this opportunity go.

“Many of us see this budget deal as the best chance to get something out of the House,” said Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. 

“If the docs are fixed and unemployment isn’t, I think that contradiction — at least for myself — begins to solidify a lot of 'no' votes.”

Levin and Van Hollen said talks are underway with House Democratic leaders and the rank and file to determine a way forward. 

The wrinkle arrives as liberal groups are bashing the Ryan-Murray deal, arguing that President Obama and other Democratic leaders dropped the ball by not insisting that an extension of jobless benefits be a part of the package.

While Democratic leaders in the White House and both chambers had been adamant that Congress act to extend the UI benefits before the holiday recess, they also did not demand that such an extension be included as part of the budget deal.

That strategy, the liberals say, was a mistake — one that's all but ensured that more than 1 million jobless Americans will lose their UI benefits just three days after Christmas. 

Several liberal advocacy groups, including the Campaign for America’s Future and Democracy for America, are lobbying Democrats to sink the proposal based on the exclusion of a UI extension.

"By failing to include an unemployment insurance extension in the budget deal, negotiators have declared 'War on Christmas' and potentially sentenced millions of struggling Americans to a very bleak New Year," Jim Dean, head of Democracy for America, said in a statement. 

"Rather than caving in to Paul Ryan and other House Republican Ebenezer Scrooge impersonators, Democrats should stand strong and reject any budget deal that fails to adequately protect those who continue to look for work." 

On Wednesday, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) blamed Obama for the inaction on the UI issue, saying he presented the White House with conditions for an extension that the administration failed to meet.

“When the White House finally called me last Friday about extending unemployment benefits, I said we would clearly consider it, as long as it’s paid for and as long as there are other efforts to help get our economy moving once again," Boehner said during a press briefing in the Capitol. "I have not seen a plan from the White House that meets those standards."

Republicans aren't the only voices blaming the president for congressional inaction on UI benefits. 

Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) said Wednesday that the administration should have insisted all along that UI benefits should have been a part of the budget package.

"Unemployment sticks out like a big sore thumb," DeFazio said of the exclusion. "They basically set the stage here and they screwed up one more time."

—This story was updated at 5:58 p.m.