Everyone agrees: The congressional elections this November are going to hinge largely on economic issues. Which is why, shortly after the U.S. Labor Department released an ominous report on July 1 saying that unemployment insurance claims are rising again, Republican Senate candidate Dino Rossi pounced.
His opponent, Democratic incumbent senator Patty Murray, is failing to get a needed extension of unemployment benefits passed, according to Rossi. And this at a time when the national unemployment rate is hovering near 10 percent, five people are competing for every available job, and a growing number of Americans suffering from long-term unemployment (estimated to be about 1.7 million people) are about to see their jobless benefits expire.
"Washington families are hurting and Patty Murray's refusal to work across the aisle to pass these needed benefits without adding to the deficit is not the kind of leadership we need," said Rossi in a July 1 statement reacting to the Labor Department report. "Patty Murray should have stood up for the families here who are counting on her to pass this needed legislation in a way which doesn't add to the deficit."
What legislation is Rossi talking about?
That's where this attack from the two-time gubernatorial loser and longtime real-estate investor falls apart.
The congressional effort to extend unemployment benefits is currently stalled because Republicans are refusing to support a Democratic proposal to pass the benefits as emergency legislation. These D.C. Republicans argue—and, following their lead, Rossi argues, too—that the $33 billion cost of extending unemployment benefits must be paid for by equivalent cuts in other federal spending, so that the deficit doesn't rise as a result of this new economic intervention.
Sounds reasonable, but here's the thing: Unemployment benefit extensions, under Republican and Democratic presidents alike, and under Republican and Democratic Congresses alike, have always been passed as emergency legislation—the kind of legislation that isn't required to come with companion cuts to make the extensions deficit-neutral.
On top of this, it's not like Republicans have been consistent in opposing emergency spending. Remember those two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? They're paid for via emergency legislation, not accompanied by equivalent cuts to the federal budget, currently exploding the federal deficit with their more than $1 trillion cost, and backed by the same conservatives who now can't stand the idea of making a comparatively small emergency outlay of $33 billion to benefit the unemployed.
"If millions of unemployed Americans isn't an emergency, then I don't know what Mr. Rossi thinks is an emergency," responds Murray campaign spokesperson Alex Glass.
Neither the counterattacks from Murray's camp nor the history of previous extension efforts have stopped Rossi.
In addition to accusing Murray of letting down the unemployed, he's also been trying to paint her as a flip-flopper for casting a January vote in favor of a Senate budgeting rule known as "pay-go"—meaning, essentially, pay as you go—while now voting to extend unemployment benefits without paying for them. "Patty Murray needs to follow the rules she set," Rossi said in a June 30 statement.
But the pay-go rule explicitly exempts emergency legislation from having to come with equivalent offsets (otherwise those Republican-backed, emergency-legislation-funded wars would have had to come with equivalent offsets, too). Glass says Rossi apparently "doesn't understand" this basic concept—an implicit reminder of Rossi's vulnerability on the experience issue, a vulnerability that he only heightens with ill-founded attacks like this.
The Rossi campaign did not respond to a request for clarification on his understanding of Senate rules.