Morning Plum: Republicans reframing fight over unemployment benefits

(Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

(Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

With the three month extension of unemployment benefits set for a Senate vote this morning, multiple Republicans are going all in on the suggestion that they would support extending benefits if only it were paid for. Republicans want to reframe this as a battle over how to pay for extending benefits, not over whether to extend them at all — as a fight over fiscal responsibility, not over whether to preserve the safety net amid mass unemployment.

Some of the coverage suggests this reframing exercise is working – what’s being lost is the fact that many Republicans oppose an extension on ideological grounds.

Reports indicate that Senator Susan Collins — one of several Republicans to support the extension so far — is pushing for bipartisan talks on how to pay for an extension if the current bill fails. Politico reports that Collins has been talking to Obama about how to get Republicans on board:

Collins convened a meeting of the bipartisan 16-member “Common Sense Caucus” ahead of the vote…Though she planned to vote for the bill, Collins said she told Obama to “help us find an offset for it.” Collins declined to say how Republicans prefer to pay for the legislation because she did not want to “preempt” talks among Senate Republicans who are trying to find a way to pay for the legislation.

The Associated Press adds: “Republicans appeared split into three camps: [GOP co-sponsor Dean] Heller and an unknown number of others; a group that is willing to renew the benefits, but insists that the $6.4 billion cost be paid for; and a third group opposed under any circumstances.”

We don’t yet know how big that second group is, but Senators such as Mark Kirk, Jeff Sessions and Bob Corker are all complaining about the lack of an offset. Democrats are wary of paying for the extension with spending cuts that take money out of the economy, since that would undercut the economic benefits of the extension in the first place. A Senate Dem leadership aide emails me:

“We still strongly prefer not to offset it so we can preserve its job creating effect, but if Republicans wanted to end tax breaks for shipping jobs overseas, that could offset the cost and reduce unemployment.”

This is what could be next: Dems could call the bluff of Republicans by challenging them to support a pay-for that does not undercut the recovery — forcing them to either agree to an extension or reveal that they are prioritizing corporate tax breaks over aid to the jobless.

The Los Angeles Times reports GOP strategists privately concede that the extension is “popular with many voters.” So the push for a “pay for” seems intended to undercut any damage Republicans might sustain if it fails. They can cast it as a casualty of inside-the-Beltway bickering, rather than of the fact that broadly speaking, one party wants to extend benefits and the other doesn’t. Even if the extension passes today, this debate will still be alive, since House Republicans oppose the extension, purportedly wanting it paid for.

But beyond the current posturing is the possibility that both sides could enter into talks over how to pay for an extension. If so, the questions then will be: how many Republicans can really support an extension, under what circumstances, and are they willing to accept any “pay fors” that don’t undermine the recovery?

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* REPUBLICANS REFRAMING BATTLE OVER UI: Check out this framing of the fight in USA Today:

Republicans have balked at extending unemployment benefits without offsetting the roughly $6.5 billion that it will cost. The White House counters that Congress has extended emergency unemployment insurance time-after-time with no strings attached during periods of high unemployment.

And so the GOP party-wide position is now one of fiscal responsibility. Never mind that multiple Republicans have repeatedly said extending UI is a bad idea because it will dissuade the jobless from seeking employment.

* WHY DEMS ARE WARY OF PAYING FOR UI EXTENSION: Fawn Johnson offers another reason why Dems are reluctant to go along:

For Democrats, setting a precedent that federal long-term unemployment benefits must be paid for opens up a can of trouble. It means that the benefits are no longer driven by economic and employment conditions but by the condition of the federal budget. Generally, tight-employment economies translate to tight budgets, which means it becomes infinitely harder for lawmakers to approve additional benefits….extended unemployment benefits give a short-term boost to the economy of about 0.2 percent of GDP — not enough to offset the cost, but it is something.

Dems want to push for a longer extension that goes beyond just the three month one currently being considered — a task that would only be made harder if a “pay for” is required.

* BUT THE UI EXTENSION COULD STILL PASS THE SENATE: By CNN’s count, four Republican Senators are now willing to support the bill: Collins, Heller, Lisa Murkowski, and Kelly Ayotte. If true, that would put Dems one vote short of passage (presuming all Dem-aligned Senators vote for it, which is not certain but likely).

Keep in mind, though, that even if this does pass the Senate, the battle over whether to pay for the law will continue, since House Republicans oppose the extension but are supposedly willing to support it if it’s paid for.

* WHERE’S THE GOP POVERTY AGENDA? The Post has a big overview of the larger context for the UI battle: Inequality is shaping up as a central issue in the midterm elections. This is interesting:

For the GOP, the challenge is to move beyond the rhetoric of past campaigns and focus on specific policies showing the party would be effective on behalf of the poor. While some leading Republican figures are developing their own policy prescriptions in anticipation of the 2016 presidential race, there is little consensus within the party about a shared poverty agenda.

Do House Republicans actually think they need a poverty agenda (whatever that would be, aside from opposing a UI extension and the Medicaid expansion, and cutting food stamps) in advance of 2014, given that their majority is supposedly invulnerable?

* GOP UNLEASHES NEW ANTI-OBAMACARE ADS: The Republican National Committee is going up with new radio ads targeting a number of vulnerable Democratic Senators and Representatives by tying them to Obama’s false claim that people who like their insurance can keep it. Since it’s unclear how many voters will have lost insurance, or care about that at all as an issue later this year, this looks like an effort to tie Dem candidates to Obama in a more general sense.

Republicans appear to be all in on this attack line, fully certain that the health law has damaged the president so irrevocably that it can only result in nonstop political riches for them.

* DEMS UNLEASH PRO-OBAMACARE ADS: Meanwhile, the DCCC is expanding its online ad campaign against vulnerable House Republicans by directing viewers to their website, FacesOfRepeal.com, which seeks to highlight the consequences of the Republican repeal stance. One thing that remains to be seen is whether embattled Dem candidates will be anywhere near as aggressive in their defense of Obamacare as the Dem party committees have been.

* AND JANET YELLEN’S CHALLENGE: Annie Lowery has a useful overview of the primary challenge the new Fed chair faces: How to get the balance right in unwinding the Fed’s extraordinary measures even at a time when mass unemployment remains. Yellen has spoken of long term unemployment as a social crisis with substantial long term costs, which is prompting hopes that she will continue to focus policy on the continuing weakness of the labor market as top priority.

Michael Hirsh has a good piece noting that Yellen’s instincts could prompt her to try to shift the debate in Washington in favor of more government activism, but that fear of criticism from the “dollar hawks,” i.e., senators like Marco Rubio who are warning of more inflation, could lead her to be cautious.

What else?

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