December 13, 2013
Hey Republicans: No unemployment extension, no farm bill. (Julia Schmalz/Bloomberg)
Hey Republicans: No unemployment extension, no farm bill. (Julia Schmalz/Bloomberg)

Now that Congress is set to leave town even as unemployment benefits for 1.3 million Americans are set to expire just after Christmas, is there any chance that Democrats can still prevail on Republicans to agree to extend them?

Dems who are pushing for an extension have hatched a new plan to do just that: Once Congress returns, they will refuse to support the reauthorization of the farm bill — which will almost certainly need Dem support to pass the House — unless Republicans agree to restart unemployment benefits with the farm bill’s savings.

“Under no circumstances should we support the farm bill unless Republicans agree to use the savings from it to extend unemployment insurance,” Dem Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a top party strategist, told me today. “This is a potential pressure point. We’re going to have to resolve differences in the farm bill because otherwise milk prices will spike. If past is prologue, they are going to need a good chunk of Democrats to pass the farm bill.”

Van Hollen said that he would organize among Democrats to get them to make this stand, and said he’d encourage the House Dem leadership to do the same.

“I will encourage my colleagues to take that position,” he said. “I’m confident that the House Democratic leadership will look for every opportunity to extend unemployment insurance, helping struggling families and the economy. The farm bill reauthorization may be the first such opportunity.” (Nancy Pelosi has already vowed to keep pushing, so she may favor this approach.)

Van Hollen said this idea could serve as a rallying point for outside progressive and labor groups, who can now insist that Dem leaders in both chambers adopt this stance. “I would encourage outside groups to make this point,” he said.

Now, some might recall that Democrats failed to make extension of unemployment insurance contingent on their support for the Ryan-Murray budget deal. But easing the sequester to help the recovery was a major Dem priority, and Dems might be more willing to use the farm bill’s fate as leverage to draw a hard line.

Van Hollen said that a “minimum of $15 billion in savings” was expected from the farm bill, much of it “from the elimination of direct subsidies,” and said it would be unconscionable not to use this money for some form of an extension of unemployment benefits (rather than deficit reduction), which would not only help 1.3 million people, but the economy, too.

“The priority should be to help those struggling familes, not only because it helps them, but because it also helps local economies throughout the country,” he said, adding that Dems should evaluate the farm bill on its own merits, and make this stand on unemployment if they are inclined to support it.

Sure, it looks like getting Republicans to agree to an extension is an extreme long shot at this point. But Dems and liberals don’t need to give up. GOP leaders have already said they’d consider an extension if Dems offer a plan to pay for it, and the leadership’s opposition to the extension doesn’t appear to be visceral. Yes, conservative groups would scream at any extension, but now that John Boehner has told them to take a hike, he should theoretically care little about their opposition to continuing UI, right?

Okay, maybe that’s absurdly optimistic. But still, this plan offers the promise of going at this again with more leverage. And it gives liberal groups and labor a way to continue rallying for the extension — they can demand Dem leaders draw a hard line — even as Members of the House return to their districts, where local press may be devoting more human interest coverage to the plight of those losing insurance over the holidays.

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