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Dems look to jam GOP on unemployment insurance

This, from Nancy Pelosi at a presser today, is a very interesting move:

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi on Thursday said Democrats would not support a budget deal that does not extend emergency unemployment benefits, which are set to lapse on Dec. 28 for about 1.3 million people.

“Yes indeed, we are making a very clear statement that we cannot, cannot support a budget agreement that does not include unemployment insurance in the budget or as a sidebar in order to move it all along,” she said at a hearing she held on unemployment benefits. “It would undermine who we are as a country.”

If this Dem hard line on unemployment insurance holds, it add another interesting, and unpredictable, factor to the ongoing budget talks, which are currently ongoing between Senator Patty Murray and GOP Rep. Paul Ryan.

According to a House Democratic leadership aide, the idea here is that, if the two reach a short term budget deal that funds the government at spending levels that are higher than the sequester, which is reportedly what is near happening, it will be harder for GOP leaders to round up House Republican support for it. That will mean a greater need for Dems in order to pass any final deal through the House. This gives Dems leverage to press House Republicans to agree to extend unemployment benefits. Pelosi’s suggestion of a “sidebar” seems important — it’s a signal that Republicans can find some other way to get it done, but get it done they must.

“Any deal we’re talking about is going to have higher-than-sequester spending level — that will have trouble getting Republicans,” a senior House Democratic leadership aide tells me. “That’s why House Democrats are going to have an important say. If they don’t address unemployment in either this or a related bill, [the deal] is not going to get her support.”

The idea is also that, with Republicans looking to avoid another government shutdown or messy battle over a continuing resolution, failure to pass a deal carries higher stakes — also giving Dems leverage to win the extension. “Republicans have to be terrified of another shutdown or the possibility of it,” the aide continues.

Of course, this could also turn out to be kabuki from Democrats. House Democrats are on record talking extensively about how the sequester is dragging down the recovery. So if Senate Democrats do reach a deal with Paul Ryan to replace it, and Republican leaders adamantly refuse to extend unemployment benefits, it could prove difficult for House Democrats to stand in the way of passing something easing the sequester. This would put House Dems in the position of making a very difficult choice.

Still, Pelosi’s move signals that Democrats are acting in coordinated fashion to increase pressure on Republicans to extend jobless benefits. As George Zornick notes, this push has now been joined by the White House:

The White House, too, is pushing for an extension — President Obama plugged it in his major economic address Wednesday, and on Thursday the White House issued a report detailing how many long-term jobless in each state would lose benefits. 

The optics of an expiration could prove pretty bad for Republicans. Over one million people are set to lose benefits during the holiday season, when the press has nothing to write about and attention may have moved on from the war of anecdotes over the health law. This, at a time when Republicans such as Ryan are consciously trying to project seriousness about acting on the economic challenges facing ordinary Americans.

Pelosi’s hard line may not end up forcing Republicans to agree to the extension. Dems may end up backing down. But for now, she’s playing hardball, and the Dems’ effort overall signals they are going to try to extract maximum political pain from Republicans if unemployment benefits do lapse, which is an awful prospect, but a very real one.