Virginia Governor's Race Debate Over Jobless Benefits Resonates Near and Far

By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 12, 2009

As Virginia gears up for a governor's campaign with national implications, a growing debate over federally funded unemployment insurance has become an early popularity test of President Obama's stimulus package and his vision of government's role in an economic downturn.

Democrats have been pounding the Republican-led House of Delegates and Robert F. McDonnell, the GOP's candidate for governor, since the House voted last month to reject $125 million in federal stimulus funds to bulk up unemployment benefits. Democratic candidates are increasingly convinced that voters will see the rejection of the federal dollars as a betrayal of struggling workers.

But Republicans have not backed down. Accepting the money would have meant agreeing to adjust Virginia's insurance program and accepting strings imposed by Congress that GOP leaders have said are symptomatic of an expansion of the federal government under Democratic control.

The fight represents a deep philosophical divide between the parties that voters are expected to weigh when they go to the polls in November.

"This is one that really matters. It's a very direct issue about what is the role of government and how should we respond to people in a very tough time," said Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), who accused lawmakers of turning their backs on the unemployed April 8 when the House voted 53 to 46, largely along party lines, to reject the funds.

McDonnell countered that "there's been an unprecedented view that the Congress should be able to basically micromanage the state's free enterprise system and basically tell the entrepreneurs and employers of Virginia how to run parts of their business. I think that's wrong."

A Democratic political action committee funded by the national Democratic Governors Association last week raised the stakes, filling the airways with a half-million dollars of television advertising attacking McDonnell on the issue.

The three Democrats vying in a June 9 primary to oppose McDonnell have made their outrage over the vote a standard part of their stump speeches. And the Democratic Party of Virginia has hosted events across the state with unemployed workers who say Republicans got the decision wrong.

Meanwhile, Republicans have been rallying with business groups, including the Virginia Chamber of Commerce and a consortium of local chambers and other groups, to argue that extending unemployment benefits to more workers would put an undue burden on companies trying to find solid footing in a tough economy.

Their objection is to federal rules that would require the state, if it accepts the stimulus money, to provide benefits to an estimated 9,000 part-time workers and laid-off employees who choose to take training courses.

McDonnell recently wrote a letter to the state's congressional delegation, asking that federal rules be changed to allow the state to revert to the old rules when stimulus funds dry up.

The battle rages against a backdrop of economic anxiety. Job losses have spread from long-depressed rural towns to such places as Loudoun, Prince William, Henrico counties and the city of Chesapeake -- areas whose well-educated swing voters have increasingly influenced the outcome of governor's races.

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