December 3, 2013

If Congress does nothing, and fails to extend a jobless-aid program, 1.3 million people will lose unemployment insurance only a few days after Christmas — perhaps leading to a series of stories about real people’s economic travails during the slow-news holiday season.

Meanwhile, Republicans are planning no fewer than four more House oversight hearings into Obamacare, even as observers are pronouncing this Congress the least productive in decades.

Democrats are hoping to turn that juxtaposition to their advantage.

I’m told House Dems will hold a hearing on Thursday into the plight of those set to lose unemployment insurance if Congress fails to extend the Emergency Unemployment Compensation program, as part of an effort to pressure Republicans to agree to an extension. Sources tell me it will be presided over by Dem Reps. Nancy Pelosi, Chris Van Hollen, Sander Levin, and others, and will hear from witness who stand to lose those benefits.

“Witnesses will include everyday Americans who would be impacted by the expiration at the end of the year,” one Dem aide tells me, adding that the title of the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee hearing is: “A Financial Cliff Facing 1.3 Million Americans.”

Wait — a Congressional hearing into the plight of the unemployed? Sounds fanciful, I know, but it’s set to happen (though the press corps will probably dismiss it as a stunt).

Meanwhile, sources tell me that in private discussions, House Republicans are giving the thumbs down to Dem entreaties for an unemployment benefits extension. According to a senior Senate Democratic leadership aide, Dems have pushed for the extension to be included in ongoing budget conference talks. “So far, they’ve resisted,” the aide tells me. “They don’t want to do that.”

A spokesman for Rep. Paul Ryan, the GOP’s lead budget negotiator, didn’t immediately return an email for comment. If the extension is not included in budget talks, it’s unclear what would come next — Republicans would presumably have to agree to the extension separately — but House GOP leaders have been non-committal on it.

The pending expiration is a huge story. Brad Plumer lays out the potential impact: Many of those people could end up dropping out of the labor force entirely; and it could lead to a drop in consumer spending, further holding back the recovery.

Meanwhile, House Dems on the Ways and Means Committee are releasing a new report arguing that the lapse could impact as many as 20,000 veterans, as well as untold numbers of children from families who rely on unemployment benefits.

The UI story is being overshadowed by deserved press attention to Obamacare’s failings. But Democrats are hoping the press narrative could turn once again (as it always does). If the website works as expected, media attention could drift, and reporters are beginning to file pieces about how this is the least productive Congress in a generation, an attention-grabbing benchmark that will find its way into reams of year-end Congressional wrap-up stories.

The GOP is successfully waging a media war of anecdotes over health care right now. But Dems hope the next batch of anecdotes that preoccupies the press corps will concern the plight of the jobless at the hands of a do-nothing Congress that is letting benefits lapse during holiday season, even as it conducts still more hearings into (what else) Obamacare.

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UPDATE: Kevin Seifert, a spokesman for Paul Ryan, declined to comment directly on the claim that Republicans are resisting the unemployment extension in budget talks, emailing the following statement:

“Chairman Ryan is committed to finding common ground. He hopes both parties can work together to cut spending in a smarter way.”

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.