The economic fortunes of nearly 5 million Americans will be determined in the next two weeks, as Congress moves to consider an extension of long-term jobless benefits for perhaps the last viable time. At this point, it appears only one thing can save those benefits: loud voices from constituents that wavering members are unable to ignore. And they have to arise immediately.
Congress is home for one week and members will no doubt be pressing the flesh as the midterm elections approach. When senators return in two weeks, there is likely to be a vote on the Reed-Heller temporary extension of unemployment benefits, as Greg Sargent has reported.
The other normal levers that might have made a “yes” vote possible are quickly ossifying. It clearly will not be the national political media that influence the debate. As Sam Stein noted yesterday, the Sunday political talk shows came and went with barely a mention of the unemployment benefit fight that consumed Washington just a couple weeks ago. It was brought up once, in passing, on “Meet the Press,” and not at all on any of the other network shows.
It’s also unlikely to be an all-consuming priority for the president. To be clear, the White House has been quite aggressive on this issue—President Obama spoke on it several times, including at a January event with several long-term jobless Americans. But as Dana Milbank noted last week, on the same day House Democrats were making a public push for a vote on extended benefits, Obama was in North Carolina talking about manufacturing. I hate “Green Lanternism” and empty failure-to-lead approaches by pundits as much as anyone, but it’s a simple fact that extending jobless benefits won’t be Obama’s singular focus with so many other issues going on.
And the legislative vehicles for getting an extension done are also dwindling. I noted in this space last month that some Democrats were hoping the omnibus appropriations bill might include an extension, but that door has been closed. The farm bill remains a possible option, though early reports about the conference bill, which remains under tight wraps, have not had anything to say about an extension.
In short, the only realistic hope for an extension is old-fashioned politics. Members have to hear a loud and clear message this week from constituents and stakeholders back home that not extending benefits is simply unacceptable. As the economic damage mounts — the economy is bleeding $1 billion per week without an extension — the push will have to come not only from the jobless but also from businesses affected by the absence of benefit checks.
And as Sargent reported recently, liberal groups will be using the break to target on-the-fence Republican lawmakers with constituent calls, and many Democratic members will be talking about the issue in town halls and forums.
If that doesn’t work, it’s hard to see what else will. As is sadly so often the case with official Washington, when it comes to matters that affect lower-income Americans, interest is usually pretty fleeting.
George Zornick is Washington reporter at The Nation. You can follow his regular blog at The Nation here, and on Twitter @gzornick.