By Bernie Becker - 12/26/13 03:44 PM EST
A solid majority of voters think Congress should extend expiring jobless benefits, a new poll said Thursday, a development Democrats believe could give them a potent issue in next year’s election.
Only around a third of voters, the Democratic pollster said, believe unemployment insurance should be allowed to expire. The poll was conducted on behalf of the National Employment Law Project.
Around 1.3 million people are expected to lose their benefits when the program expires on Dec. 28, and almost 2 million others could be affected in 2014, if Congress doesn’t act next year.
On a conference call, Democratic lawmakers made clear they would continue to pound the issue, and they believed their efforts to get the House and Senate to approve a short-term extension of the program were starting to be successful.
Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and Rep. Sandy Levin (D-Mich.), two core supporters of the program, said the Saturday deadline had helped put a human face on the benefits, with stories about the impact of their expiration rolling out across the country.
“I think there is a sense that this is indeed a lifeline,” said Levin, the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, which has jurisdiction over unemployment programs.
“Now we’re seeing the faces,” Levin added. “People are no longer numbers.”
The two lawmakers also said the stories helped advocates for the program respond to Republicans like Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.), who have said that expanded benefits are a “disservice” to workers.
“These benefits are very modest,” Reed told reporters. “This is not a program that people are leaving a good job for, or not looking for a job for.”
The Rhode Island Democrat added that the benefits offer “barely enough” for some unemployed people to stay afloat.
The Senate is scheduled to vote on a proposed three-month extension of the benefits, from Reed and Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.), when they return to Washington in January.
That measure would not offset the roughly $6 billion the program costs over three months, but Democrats say they would use the added time to discuss reforms to the programs with Republicans.
Reed specifically mentioned paying for the program on a more long-term basis by slicing tax loopholes, but that sort of proposal has been a nonstarter among Republicans in recent years.
Levin told reporters that he would work to get the measure to the House floor, but Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has so far taken a hands-off approach to the expiration of the benefits.
But Guy Molyneux of Hart Research Associates says that tactic could come back to bite Republicans. The extended benefits, Molyneux said, had broad backing across the country, and among both men and women.
Plus, Molyneux said that groups that have started to lean Republican — like seniors and white voters without a college education — also strongly supported the program.
“This is, I think, a politically very powerful issue,” Molyneux told reporters.