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Williams: Inequality issue can boost Dems

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A year ago, top Democratic political strategists pointed to one big political stick their candidates could use to beat back a possible Republican landslide in the 2014 midterm elections.

The issue: Rising income inequality.

Now the strategy is coming to life with help from Republicans in Congress.

With the GOP majority in the House blocking an extension of long-term unemployment insurance, a group of House Democrats, led by Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), circulated a letter last week asking for a meeting to discuss the topic – not with Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) but with the incoming House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).

Press reports described this as an “end-run” around Boehner who, along with the outgoing Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), had refused to take up the issue for a vote in the House.

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The Democrats, smelling a ripe campaign issue, are quick to point out that if Congress does not act before the end of the year, more than 5 million Americans will lose their unemployment benefits and be left out in the cold.

Democrats are also being handed ammunition on income inequality by the Republican refusal to renew the Highway Trust Fund.

President Obama last week said that without Congressional action to renew the trust fund, which is used for infrastructure spending, many states will have to stop work projects. He estimated that 700,000 people could lose their jobs.

“That would be like Congress threatening to lay off the entire population of Denver, or Seattle or Boston,” the president said in an artfully positioned speech on the Washington, D.C., waterfront with a bridge under repair behind him. “Middle class families can’t wait for Republicans in Congress to do stuff,” the president added.

Obama proposed restoring the trust fund and other infrastructure projects by closing some loopholes in the corporate tax system.

“It’s not crazy,” an energized Obama said. “It’s not socialism. It’s not ‘the imperial presidency.’ No laws are broken. We’re just building roads and bridges.”

Meanwhile an unlikely ally — the business community — is bolstering the Democrats’ complaints about the lack of GOP support for growing the economy. The president of the National Association of Manufacturers, Jay Timmons, has charged Republicans with ignoring the concerns of the people who create jobs.

The business leaders’ priorities include reviving the highway trust fund, acting on immigration reform and giving new legislative approval for the Export-Import Bank.

Timmons, citing Cantor’s defeat in a recent primary, criticized Tea Party Republicans for siding with Democrats on the far left and “demonizing American businesses and trying to throw out those who are willing to govern.”

Gerald Seib, a Wall Street Journal columnist, described the Timmons speech as “an especially telling sign of the times” because he “questioned the business community’s traditional leaning on Republicans to advance [the business] agenda in Washington.”

The power of income inequality as a political issue is evident in polls. The economy is still the number one concern of voters, left, center and right, in every opinion poll. Gallup polling from earlier this year found that 67 percent of Americans say they are concerned about income inequality.

The House Republicans’ aversion to anything resembling ‘stimulus spending’ puts them in a dangerous political box. They fear offending Tea Party Republicans who refuse to acknowledge that the last stimulus helped lighten a depressed economic picture. But their indifference puts them at risk of alienating voters calling for Congress to do its part to speed up the nation’s recovery.

Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.), the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, recently announced plans to force Boehner to at least act on extending unemployment benefits before the end of the year.

Levin’s tactics come in addition to Cicilline’s plan to get Boehner’s attention – and to focus the attention of midterm voters on the Republican refusal to get help to the unemployed.

Cicilline has joined with Reps. Frank LoBiondo (R-N.J.) and Dan Kildee (D-Mich.) to introduce a bipartisan bill extending coverage for the long-term unemployed. Some Republicans have joined the effort. Republican Congressmen Jon Runyan (N.J.), Chris Smith (N.J.) and Peter King (N.Y.) are co-sponsors.

Their legislation is an identical House companion to the bipartisan bill sponsored in the upper chamber by Sens. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) and Jack Reed (D-R.I.).

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) is already giving a taste of the power income inequality could have as an election-year issue.

“Republicans,” she said in a speech on the Senate floor earlier this year, “line up to protect billions in tax breaks and subsidies for big corporations with armies of lobbyists but they can’t find a way to help struggling families trying to get back on their feet.”

Look for Democrats to put jobs, income inequality and lapsed unemployment benefits front and center in their campaigns this year.

Those could be the issues that keep them from losing their own jobs.

Juan Williams is an author and political analyst for Fox News Channel