You're a free man, Mr. Speaker. Act accordingly. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) You’re a free man, Mr. Speaker. Act accordingly. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Multiple reports this morning indicate that serious negotiations have begun between the two parties over how to pay for an extension of unemployment insurance. Many Republicans are now professing openness to the general idea of extending this lifeline — having moved away from their ideological objections to it — and are now claiming concern over how to pay for it.

The larger context here is that multiple Republicans are set to give speeches this week rolling out a new GOP poverty agenda. Both of these developments raise the same questions.

Republicans want to pay for the extension of jobless benefits. But the question is whether there is any way of paying for it they can accept that wouldn’t undermine the recovery or more ludicrously would cut the safety net elsewhere, more ludicrously still by somehow targeting Obamacare. Jonathan Cohn has a simple two step guide to judging the GOP “asks” in these talks:

1) Who’s paying the bill? The point of extended unemployment benefits is to help poor and middle-class Americans struggling to pay their bills. A proposal that paid for the extension by cutting food stamps or some other safety net program would be simply be shifting the pain from one group to another.

2) When is the bill being paid? Unemployment insurance is a terrific form of economic stimulus, because, according to most research, the people who get it spend it right away. But to get the maximum effect, you’d want the offsetting cuts or revenue to take place in the future.

In this context, the unemployment debate — like the immigration debate — is emerging as a reliable guide to whether Republicans are really breaking from the conservative groups that John Boehner recently stiff-armed in reaching a short term budget deal. If Democrats offer a pay for that both parties should theoretically be able to accept, how will Republicans react? As Brian Beutler notes:

If Democrats relent and agree to an offset, one consolation will be some insight into the split between the GOP’s political opportunists and its unyielding ideologues — those who refuse to subsidize the less fortunate and have convinced themselves that the long-term unemployed have been lulled into complacency by unemployment benefits or have determined that it’s not in their interest to return to work. These are the folks who side with…conservative groups warning Republicans not to vote for any UI extension, even one that’s deficit neutral.

This is also a useful prism through which to evaluate the speeches that GOP leaders such as Eric Cantor and Marco Rubio are set to deliver this week. As Byron York reports: “these leaders and others want the Republican Party to give anti-poverty policy a newly prominent place among GOP priorities.”

But what these speeches — and the GOP approach to unemployment benefits in coming days — will really illuminate is whether Republicans have really broken in any meaningful sense from long-held shibboleths: government help to the jobless and/or poor can only foster dependency; government spending has no stimulative or other value whatsoever and can only act as a drag on the economy.

The two big “reformist conservative” pieces that stirred discussion this week — one by Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner; the other by Michael Strain — drew attention precisely because they directly called on Republicans to break from this Tea Party worldview, and to offer conservative policy solutions accordingly. The debate over unemployment insurance — and over the emerging GOP policy agenda — will shed light on whether any Republicans are listening to them.

* REPUBLICANS SHIFT ON UNEMPLOYMENT BENEFITS: The New York Times has a good overview of the talks Senators are entering into over how to pay for unemployment benefits, now that the Senate has voted to proceed to the bill. The Times notes that a few Republicans are still flatly opposed to the extension on ideological grounds, but most have moved away from that:

Yet most Republicans put aside the “safety net as hammock” arguments, and enough of them were willing on Tuesday to begin the formal process of extending benefits. “There was enough concern,” [Indiana Senator Dan] Coats said, “and maybe some legitimate need to do some extension of unemployment benefits, that it shouldn’t have been just shut down.”

Extending UI is “legitimate”! You don’t say. Republicans are publicly shifting on the issue. The question is whether this professed move away from ideological opposition to unemployment benefits results in serious talks over how to pay for an extension, or whether it’s just a way to minimize fallout by casting its eventual death as the result of inside-the-Beltway bickering.

* WHAT’S NEXT IN TALKS OVER UI EXTENSION? The Post reports that the White House is drawing a hard line in the talks over how to pay for the extension, and the chances of a deal look very slim:

White House advisers said that Obama is willing to discuss spending offsets only for a ­longer-term extension of unemployment benefits, not the three-month bill under consideration…That sets up a delicate negotiation. Of the six Republican senators who voted yes Tuesday — Collins, Portman, Heller, Kelly Ayotte, Dan Coats and Lisa Murkowski — five said they were unlikely to support the legislation as it is currently drafted…For now, House GOP aides said, Boehner’s leadership team is content to see how the talks play out in the Senate before they consider other options.

But is there any “pay for” Republicans can support that doesn’t either undermine the recovery or undermine Obamacare?

* GOP SENATORS TAKE HIT FOR OPPOSING UI EXTENSION: Roll Call notes a fascinating dynamic: GOP Senators in blue, high-unemployment states who opposed the extension are being contrasted with their Dem counterparts in local media back home:. Note this, about Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Mark Kirk of Illinois:

The Philadelphia Inquirer ran the headline, “Toomey, Casey split on unemployment benefits” and the Chicago Tribune published, “Illinois senators split in jobless aid extension vote.” Pennsylvania and Illinois have jobless rates of 7.3 percent and 8.7 percent, respectively.

It’ll be interesting to see if pressure on these Senators results in a change on the issue if an offset is negotiated.

* MORE GOP GOVERNORS EMBRACING MEDICAID EXPANSION? Michael Tomasky reports there is real progress in ongoing talks between the federal government and Republican-controlled states who are looking to implement their own versions of the Medicaid expansion:

An official at the Department of Health and Human Services tells me that an agreement is expected to be reached in April with Michigan, where the terms of acceptance of the money are being finalized. Pennsylvania…is slated to submit a plan to HHS by the end of this month. The agreement with Iowa, which will be “customized” along Arkansas lines, is pretty much finalized. With Indiana, there’s more work to be done, but talks have been ongoing…Utah is inching toward accepting the money, as is Tennessee.

This is significant. It suggests more Republican governors are trying to accept federal money to expand coverage in their states on their own terms (making it something other than Obamacare, one supposes).

* RECORD-HIGH SELF IDENTIFY AS INDEPENDENTS: This, from Gallup, will drive some discussion today:

Forty-two percent of Americans, on average, identified as political independents in 2013, the highest Gallup has measured since it began conducting interviews by telephone 25 years ago. Meanwhile, Republican identification fell to 25%, the lowest over that time span. At 31%, Democratic identification is unchanged from the last four years but down from 36% in 2008.

Interesting, but…even if this does indicate serious GOP brand problems, will this really matter in 2014, given underlying structural factors protecting the GOP’s House majority and the degree to which Dems are on the defensive on the Senate map?

* THE NEW BELTWAY NARRATIVE: With Dems shifting hard into a message emphasizing inequality, news orgs will be arguing that this is a difficult balancing act because it risks casting doubt on the sluggishness of the recovery under Obama. This Associated Press story is a case in point:

It could be a tricky emphasis. Even as Obama calls attention to what he perceives as structural economic flaws that have created a chasm between haves and have-nots, he is also trying to emphasize the economy’s recovery from the Great Recession.

I don’t think this is a difficult balance to strike: the economy is improving, but not fast enough, and the recovery’s gains are not shared widely enough. But you’ll be hearing more along these lines.

* AND IMMIGRATION REFORM IS ALIVE AGAIN: The Associated Press has the latest version of the “immigration reform isn’t really dead, after all” tale, with some proponents of reform declaring an openness to comprehensive reform that only includes legalization, and not a path to citizenship.

The overarching thing here is that advocates just want House Republicans to vote on something already. This could increase the chances of a kind of legislative Ping-Pong between the Senate and House that could result in something resembling comprehensive reform.

What else?