The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How Republicans turned against unemployment insurance

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Just six Republicans senators joined a united Democratic caucus Tuesday to move forward with an extension of long-term unemployment benefits. The policy's newfound controversy after years of easy passage parallels a sea change in Republican attitudes nationally on the issue.

Between 2009 and early 2013, the share of Republicans who said the federal government should decrease spending to assist the unemployed has more than doubled from 26 to 56 percent in Pew Research Center polls, now representing the majority view within the party. Independents and Democrats have also grown more willing to cut unemployment aid, though clear majorities of each still said it should be "kept the same" or "increased."

Democrats believe they have a win-win on the extension of long-term unemployment insurance: If Republicans cave, the Democrats win a policy victory without allowing other spending cuts, and if the vote fails, they can hammer GOP congressional candidates for being uncaring for people suffering in a bad economy.

But while polls show Republicans are alone in backing cuts to jobless benefits, the data also find sympathy for Republicans' arguments against extending benefits.

Start with where support stands. Fifty-five percent of registered voters want Congress to "maintain" unemployment benefits for workers whose state benefits have ended, with 34 percent supporting a cut, according to a December poll sponsored by the National Employment Law Project, a group that supports extending jobless benefits. That's similar to 52 percent in a 2012 NBC/Wall Street Journal poll who said providing unemployment benefits for up to 99 weeks was a "good idea"; 33 percent said it was a bad idea.

But the public also sympathizes with Republican Sen. Rand Paul's argument that unemployment aid acts as a disincentive for workers, and unemployment cuts are far less toxic than those to Social Security and Medicare.

In late 2011, a CBS News/New York Times poll found 54 percent of Americans saying "people who receive unemployment benefits are less motivated to look for a job." Even 40 percent of those who were unemployed at the time agreed with this concept (though 50 percent said benefits did not sap motivation). A 2010 Fox News poll also bore out this belief. It's not that Americans think unemployed people are lazy -- most think they are actually trying to find jobs, but they also feel the program could make them less likely to do so.

Unemployment aid -- while popular -- also ranks among the programs where Americans are most willing to accept cuts. Some 55 percent in a March 2013 McClatchy/Marist poll said they'd rather cut unemployment than increase revenues or cut other spending, nearly as many as supported cuts to energy spending (57 percent). By comparison, just 31 percent backed cuts in education, 33 percent in Social Security and 36 percent in Medicare when pitted against other revenues and cuts.

Pew data also bear this out. Unemployment aid ranked as the third most popular program to cut -- only exceeded by global aid and State Department spending -- even as only 32 percent thought spending should be decreased.

Peyton M. Craighill contributed to this report.