As they have been on immigration reform, liberals seem deflated that Republicans are willing to compromise on extending unemployment benefits, rather than adopt the mantle of obstructionism and set themselves up for a public relations blunder. Perhaps the Republicans are catching on: Let Senate Democrats and a few brave Republicans do the heavy lifting (e.g. pass a budget, end the shutdown) so right-wingers can beat their chests, and then figure out how to get something the GOP wants. (Hey, it’s almost like legislating!)

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Republican from Virginia, center, walks towards House Speaker John Boehner's office at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Monday, Sept. 30, 2013. The U.S. government stands poised for its first partial shutdown in 17 years at midnight tonight, after a weekend with no signs of negotiations or compromise from either the House or Senate to avert it. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg *** Local Caption *** Eric Cantor House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

On this one, the GOP is right on both policy and politics. Unemployment benefits are not supposed to be welfare, which now entails a work requirement, but rather temporary relief. As The Post’s editorial board put it, “Economist Michael Strain of the American Enterprise Institute suggests cash bonuses, paid with unemployment insurance funds, as a reward to the unemployed when they find work. Ultimately, the best answer to long-term joblessness is restoring rapid economic growth, a subject to which Congress must turn as soon as the unemployment benefits fight is over.” In fact, Republicans want to address economic growth as part of an unemployment-benefits deal on the (well-grounded) theory that otherwise they’ll get nothing from Democrats but warmed-over schemes for wealth distribution.

Ironically, with about 50 million Americans still in poverty and President Obama railing against income inequality, he should be the one tying unemployment benefits to pro-jobs, pro-growth measures that address not just the unemployed but also the need to improve upward mobility and household earnings. Obama, however, sees the federal government as either a piggy bank that can simply give out money or a vise that can force employers to give out money (by raising the minimum wage). He fails to recognize that this hasn’t been successful in the past and doesn’t address the drivers of both poverty and income inequality (e.g. undertrained workers, household breakups, restrictions on energy development and a punishing corporate tax code that drives investors and employers out of the country).

The demand to “pay for” unemployment is understandable, but it’s a distraction. The amount of money at issue is tiny compared with the debt, and Republicans should understand by now that nicks at domestic discretionary sending distract from the real work that needs to be done — namely, entitlement reform.

What then should Republicans ask for? Certainly, reform and enhanced job training should be on the list, as should domestic energy development legislation. (You really can’t be serious about pro-growth measures if you oppose opening up federal lands to take advantage of the fracking revolution.) This will be a test of sorts for both Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.): Will they couple reasonable proposals with an unemployment-benefits extension (thereby enraging the far right) or demonstrate that they understand the legislative process and are willing to make a deal to achieve their conservative reform agenda?

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), following on the heels of his budget solution, will be a key figure. His staff suggests he is open to a deal, depending on what the exact pro-growth proposals Dems will agree to. This is an opportunity for him as well, a chance to break out of his green-eyeshade mode and shape a bigger, affirmative agenda.

In sum, the unemployment-benefits debate should be illuminating. Do Dems and their media cohorts want a fight or a deal that addresses an issue they claim to be concerned about? Can Lee and Rubio do more than speechify? Does Ryan continue to build his reputation as a go-to dealmaker? And do House leaders have a firmer grasp on their members than they did before the shutdown disaster? Stay tuned.

Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective.
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