If you follow politics—or even if you don't—you probably have at least a vague memory of some Republican Senator from the south holding up unemployment benefits earlier this year.
Ring a bell? That was Jim Bunning of Kentucky, and his problem was that ever since the Great Recession began, the Democrats who control Congress have been extending unemployment benefits on an "emergency" basis—which means they aren't required to find savings in other parts of government to pay for this new, and growing, expense.
At the conclusion of the dust-up earlier this year, Bunning relented and unemployment benefits were temporarily extended. But these days more and more Republicans are sounding like him. Hence, the idea of extending unemployment benefits is once again in trouble.
Today the House failed to pass an extension that Seattle Congressman Jim McDermott co-sponsored, leading his spokesman, Ed Shelleby, to write me with this response to the Republicans' continued "no more benefits until you pay for them" argument:
Restoring unemployment benefits during a recession is considered emergency spending, and extensions of the unemployment program under both Republican and Democratic Presidents and Congresses have been done in the same way. We now have nearly 7 million Americans who have been unemployed for more than 6 months—the highest number of long-term unemployed people since we started recording the metric. If we don’t pass this extension, 1.7 million people will have lost their benefits by the end of the week.
With unemployment at nearly 10 percent, and 5 people competing for every available job, we are indeed in the midst of an emergency. Republicans who are saying we must be able to pay for unemployment benefits didn’t seem to care much about deficits when it came to two wars costing $1 trillion dollars and two tax cuts for the wealthy costing $1.7 trillion—both of which had no offsets. Republicans have offered only laughably unrealistic ideas about how to pay for this. We absolutely must pass this bill.
Democrats like McDermott will keep trying. But they have an even bigger problem in the Senate, where the margin of Democratic control is slimmer (and the resistance from Republicans the same). Which makes this into one of those great issues that creates an opportunity to show why it really, really matters who's in your state's Senate seat.
For example, what would Republican Senate hopeful Dino Rossi do about the Democrats' unemployment insurance extension efforts?
He would block them, using the latest version of the Bunning argument—which is now the Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) argument. From a statement Rossi's campaign released today:
“Washington families are hurting, and Patty Murray can help ease their burden by sponsoring a fully paid for bill to extend unemployment insurance without adding to the deficit,” said Rossi. “Patty Murray has done a lot of talking about how she is standing up for Washingtonians, but the only thing Washington job seekers have to show for it is budget-busting bills which add to the debt and legislation which makes it harder for businesses to expand and hire new workers..."
Rossi supports proposals by Sen. Coburn which would save the federal government an estimated $34.6 billion, more than enough to pay to extend unemployment insurance. These proposals include enacting the administration’s proposed 5% cut on government spending (saves $22 billion), eliminating nonessential government travel ($10 billion in savings over 10 years), and a temporary freeze on federal employee salaries (saves $2.6 billion).
Murray campaign spokesperson Alex Glass responds:
If Mr. Rossi doesn’t think that millions of unemployed Americans is an emergency, then I don’t know what is. Since the 1950s, both Republican and Democratic Congresses have passed unemployment as emergency legislation.
As for Rossi's contention that savings can be found to cover the cost of extending unemployment insurance, Glass demanded details:
I think he should say specifically how he would pay for it. I see ‘Cut excess government spending,' but what does that actually mean? He’s running for federal office. He should have some specifics.
Patty Murray, like other Democrats in the Senate, is for passing the unemployment insurance extension as emergency legislation.