Politicking unlikely to break impasse in Congress on jobless benefits extension


J. Scott Applewhite / AP

Storm clouds hang over Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, Sept. 27, 2013.

Thu, Feb 20, 2014 (2 a.m.)

To hear Nevada’s congressional delegation tell it, restoring unemployment benefits could have been a winning policy issue, cutting across party lines and to the heart of local post-recession problems in a hard-hit state.

But after two months of unsuccessful wrangling to replenish funding for emergency assistance to long-term unemployed, lawmakers outside Nevada are turning to political messaging, with Democrats, primarily, warning of electoral consequences for Republicans withholding their votes.

With Congress this divided in a midterm election year, that turn might have been inevitable. But it’s not clear that the political messaging on unemployment will fare any better to secure a benefits extension — now or later — than the policy appeal did.

Bottom line: The national outlook doesn’t paint an optimistic picture for unemployed Nevadans.

“I don’t know that there’s that much passion anymore in the argument,” said Eric Herzik, a professor of political science at UNR. “Unemployment? I’m not seeing it as the issue that’s going to propel politics in 2014. I don’t even know that it’s going to get resolved now.”

Congress — or more accurately, the Senate — has been scrambling to come up with a solution to reinstate suspended emergency unemployment benefits since Dec. 28, when funding for weeks 27 through 73 of assistance ran out.

Leading that effort are Nevada Sens. Harry Reid, the Democratic majority leader, and Dean Heller, a first-term Republican and the sole voice in his party committed to extending unemployment insurance, whatever the terms.

Together, they have put the challenge of restoring unemployment insurance to the Senate for a vote five times this year, coming closest — just one vote shy of passage — this month.

As appreciative of Heller as he has been, Reid has minced few words in accusing his other GOP compatriots as the culprit.

“They have no intention of passing unemployment benefits for the short term or long term,” Reid said last week. “They don’t care; it’s obvious from their actions.”

Republicans, save Heller, counter that the true person playing politics with people’s jobless assistance is Reid — so he can preserve the issue as a campaigning point for 2014. Reid has dismissed the suggestion as “asinine.”

But for all the argument, the political pressure has not been enough to move votes — which makes political watchers wonder whether it could ever move an election.

“It’s going to show up in broader economic and jobs issues in the public opinion,” said David Damore, a political science professor at UNLV. “But it’s a tough one. ... The unemployed don’t have a lobbying constituency. They’re kind of voiceless in this.”

Democrats have been warning Republicans that there will be hell to pay with constituents if they’re seen as not supporting unemployment benefits.

There are real numbers behind these efforts: In Nevada, the number of long-term unemployed who’ve lost benefits topped 20,000 weeks ago. This week, a report from House Ways and Means Committee Democrats calculated that lost benefits would mean a $54 million hit to the Nevada economy.

But one key number hasn’t been affected by the statistics. In early December, Reid told the Sun’s editorial board he had “58 or 59” votes for unemployment benefits; that remains his coalition today.

“Right now, (the unemployment message) doesn’t have any juice … and the Republicans sure aren’t feeling the heat,” Herzik said. “That could change, but I’m not seeing it. And if there was juice, somebody would act.”

Short of a major change of heart or strategy, don’t expect a shift in the vote balance anytime soon.

Republican holdouts want what Reid won’t give them — an open amendment process that could subject unemployment extension to the addition of major caveats and riders, or an agreement that would end tax credits for the children of immigrants without documentation. The latter could affect tens of thousands of Nevada families.

And Democrats want to point out that Republicans are putting party over people — a message the party’s campaign arm is only too eager to deliver.

“Because of Republican Senate candidates and the reckless economic agenda they have embraced, long-term jobless insurance has expired,” reads a Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee news release this year.

But sending an urgent message on unemployment could become troublesome for a party that will also trumpet its economic achievements come fall.

“The Democrats are in an odd situation. The economy has gotten better, the Democrats can claim, look the deficit has come down. … Oh, but remember the poor!” Herzik said. “They’re trying to send two distinct messages at the same time.”

Meanwhile, Republican governors who in past cycles have neutralized the Tea Party wing of the GOP — which is firmly opposed to an extension of the benefits — may also be muted for similar reasons.

“You have a lot of governors, like (Nevada Gov. Brian) Sandoval, who are running on improvement — we’re not as strong as we’d like to be, but hey, we’re improving — but hey, we need more unemployment?” Damore said. “That creates a dissonance as well.”

“Unemployment payments stopped. It’s now an individual hardship — and I don’t want to make light of that — but it hasn’t become this policy disaster,” Herzik said. “For Nevada, unemployment is still a policy issue. But nationwide, it’s big-time politics.”

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