December 11, 2013
Paul Ryan (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Paul Ryan (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

On the morning after lawmakers reached a budget deal that doesn’t include an extension in unemployment benefits, chief GOP budget architect Paul Ryan awoke to a raft of home-state headlines that were all about the nearly 100,000 Wisconsinites who stand to get cut off.

“99,000 unemployed Wisconsinites face cuts,” blared one front page. “Jobless benefits at risk for 99K in Wisconsin,” blared another. “99,000 state residents to lose benefits,” blared a third. You can see those and a lot more at this compilation of front pages put together by Dems on the Ways and Means Committee.

The imminent expiration of the Emergency Unemployment Compensation program for 1.3 million Americans is mostly being treated as a fait accompli in Washington. But it looks to be turning into a very resonant issue in local media in states where many thousands of residents will be directly impacted by it. (Dems have created an interactive map showing how many people in each state stand to lose benefits.)

This fact is central to the emerging Dem strategy to increase pressure on Republicans to agree to an extension. House Dems are working to drum up as much local press coverage of the issue as possible, because local coverage can focus directly on how many constituents in a lawmaker’s state stand to be hurt – making it hit home in a way Beltway media coverage can’t.

For instance, articles like this one in the Las Vegas Review-Journal dramatize the plight of a family set to lose benefits, after the mother was laid off last year from her job as a store manager. Headline: “With benefits on block, jobless Nevadans face uncertainty.” Dems hope such coverage pressures Republicans they deem getable, such as Nevada Senator Dean Heller and Rep. Joe Heck.

This strategy includes placing Op ed pieces by Democrats in papers that serve the districts of top Republicans, such as this one by Rep. Sander Levin in the Cleveland Plain-Dealer, the largest paper in John Boehner’s home state. The game plan is granular: One Democrat points out to me that stats are available on how many would lose benefits on the county level, and that Dems are trying to push these numbers into the coverage, because it is tangible for people in local communities. These numbers are already being reflected in local stories like this one.

Now, it’s fair to question whether Democrats did enough to get a UI extension in the budget deal. Perhaps they could have drawn a harder line on the issue and used their leverage (Republicans will need Dems to pass the deal out of the House) more effectively.

But beyond those legitimate points, it needs to be understood that Dems have not given up on getting Republicans to agree to the UI extension. This could either be accomplished through a stand alone bill or an add on during the budget process, and Democrats continue to press Republicans behind the scenes.

Will any of this matter to Republicans? It’s hard to say, since so many are cosseted away in such safe districts that tough headlines may not matter to them. But the public statements from GOP leaders on the extension have seemed tepid, suggesting their opposition isn’t really visceral. It seems like they’d love for this issue to go away. Boehner has said he’s willing to look at an extension if the White House offers a “plan,” which seems like he’s open to some kind of trade. Of course, conservatives who are already scorching GOP leaders over the deal will only get more outraged if they agree to a UI extension, making it that much harder.

Still, the coverage could get a lot worse, once the deadline looms and human interest stories multiply about folks facing the loss of benefits during the holiday season, at a time when reporters have little else to write about. I wouldn’t give up on Republicans agreeing to the extension just yet.

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