Leaked: GOP's Strategy On Unemployment Benefits

by Seth Millstein

The Senate surprised everybody on Tuesday, when it voted to advance legislation extending unemployment insurance for the 1.3 million Americans who saw their benefits expire last month. As most Democrats are in favor of the UI extension, its fate now lies in the hands of Republicans, and as of today, the GOP’s strategy going forward is pretty clear: Try as hard as possible to convince people that unemployment benefits aren’t that important, and if that fails, hold the extension hostage in exchange for — you guessed it — another delay of Obamacare.

On Monday, an internal document House Republicans had been circulating amongst themselves leaked, revealing the party’s talking points for arguing against extending unemployment insurance. It calls for Republicans to highlight express sympathy for unemployed workers, stress the importance of creating jobs, as opposed to “making unemployment easier to tolerate,” and use some carefully cherry-picked examples to convince people that allowing benefits to expire — or demanding spending cuts in exchange for extending them — isn’t the historical anomaly it is.

For example, many have pointed out that in the past, unemployment insurance has always been extended when unemployment is as high as it is now. That’s true; when George W. Bush was president, Republicans voted to extend the program without offsets on five different occasions, even though unemployment was lower than it is now. That would seem to be proof, as if any more was needed, of the partisan motives underlying the GOP opposition to extending benefits under President Obama.

But wait, the memo says. There was one time in the 1980s when Congress didn’t extend unemployment benefits despite the unemployment rate being higher than what it is now. Nevermind the fact that GOP poster boy Ronald Reagan supported extending the benefits — this one example from 1985 cancels out the 14 other counterexamples, proving once and for all that the current GOP position is “within the historic norm.”

That’s basically the gist of the memo; if you’d like, you can read it in its entirety here.

As House Republican leadership was coaching its members on how to make the case against extending benefits, the Senate Minority Leader had another idea. While speaking on the Senate floor, Mitch McConnell proposed that Democrats should agree to delay the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate for a year in exchange for a UI extension. Of course, the individual mandate was already partially delayed in December. Delaying it in its entirety would cripple the fundamental structure of Obamacare, which is based on the premise that everybody who can afford insurance buys it. And during the debt ceiling crisis — in which the stakes of failing to act were much higher — Democrats showed a categorical unwillingness to trade away any of Obamacare’s components in exchange for Republican cooperation.

In other words, there’s really no conceivable universe wherein Democrats agree to pay McConnell’s ransom. Perhaps, then, his demands ought to be seen as an indication that no, Republicans won’t agree to extend unemployment benefits.

House Speaker John Boehner signaled as much earlier today, using the exact same language spelled out in his caucus’s memo (“it’s a personal crisis” for the unemployed, etc). The path to extended benefits necessarily runs through the House, and so at this point, the prospects for extending them are, unfortunately, pretty dim.

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