Dems: GOP backlash coming after unemployment benefits blocked

Democrats are banking on another backlash against Senate Republicans for leaving town without extending unemployment benefits.

For the second time in March, GOP senators are blocking swift passage of an extension to unemployment insurance.

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Earlier this month, Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) objected to a quick vote on a $10 billion, monthlong extension, only to relent under Democratic criticism and see half of his GOP colleagues vote to clear the package for President Barack Obama's signature. This past week, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) blocked repeated Democratic attempts to vote on another monthlong extension with a cost of $9.2 billion. Without the extension, the benefits are set to expire on April 5.

Democrats said that deadline will come and go without a vote, as Congress is scheduled to be out of session for two weeks, until April 12. With Coburn standing in the way, Democrats argue Republicans will bear the brunt of criticism for an interruption in benefit checks for thousands of Americans out of work.

"After Sen. Bunning tried to stop this and we were able to get it through, we thought we could at least on an interim basis adopt these provisions and move forward," said Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) on Friday.

Approximately 212,000 unemployed Americans would lose benefits in the first week that the unemployment aid extension expires, according to the left-leaning National Employment Law Project.

In addition to extending unemployment insurance, the legislation would prevent scheduled cuts to Medicare payments to doctors; extend COBRA healthcare subsidies for the unemployed; and extend a satellite television licensing agreement that allows rural residents to view network television.

Republicans are objecting because the measure isn't paid for and therefore would add to the federal deficit. Democrats say the unemployment benefits extension falls under the category of emergency spending, and therefore does not need to meet pay-as-you-go requirements.

Coburn said House Democrats are to blame for Congress's failure to act. On Thursday, Coburn and Senate leaders from both parties discussed a weeklong extension of the benefits that would be fully paid for, but GOP senators said House Democrats didn't like the compromise.

"We didn't stop this," Coburn told reporters Friday. "Nancy Pelosi stopped this by not agreeing."

Coburn is arguing that lawmakers need to start finding ways to pay for the legislation they want to pass. Coburn and other GOP senators said they support more aid to the jobless as long as it doesn't add to a deficit, which is expected to hit a record $1.5 trillion this year.

"The American people recognize it's time — I'm not sure that Congress does — that we start making difficult choices," Coburn said.

With both sides digging in, the Senate will likely take up a short-term extension that can be applied retroactively when they return from the two-week recess, Reed said.

Both the House and Senate have passed longer-term extensions of the jobless aid to last the rest of this year, but the two chambers have yet to hash out differences between the bills. The House version includes infrastructure spending and fiscal aid to create and save jobs, while the Senate version is attached to extensions of popular business tax breaks.

Democrats believe their strategy of refusing to give in to GOP demands worked against Bunning and will work against Coburn. Not only did Democrats get bipartisan support for the one-month extension without having to pay for it earlier this month, they saw an improvement in their political fortunes. A Democracy Corps poll after the Bunning debate found Republicans' favorability rating among independents dropped 11 percentage points in March, Democratic aides noted. The GOP's standing in a generic party ballot against Democrats fell by 12 points this month, the survey found.

“Having seen first-hand the embarrassment Jim Bunning brought to Kentucky when he committed a similar disservice to the American people, I’m surprised Sen. Coburn would think it wise to single-handedly stand between American families and the resources they need to make ends meet," said Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) in a statement.

Coburn said this time will be different. Unlike Bunning, who was opposed by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) during a floor debate, Coburn said he has received the support of GOP leaders.

Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) appeared with Coburn at a news conference Friday to help him argue his case.

Kyl said Republicans erred by not backing up Bunning, whose objections to a short-term extension weren't anticipated.

"After we reflected on the fact that we didn't give as much help as we probably should have, we wanted to do it in a concerted way to give help this time," Kyl said.