With unemployment surging last month at its fastest pace in 20 years, House Democratic leaders thought they would have an easy time slamming through a broad extension of unemployment benefits with a veto-proof majority.
So confident, they initially put their bill on the suspension calendar last week, thinking few Republicans would vote against unemployment benefits less than five months before the election. They thought that not many would risk tying their fortunes to President Bushs veto pen.
But House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) rallied their troops as they have repeatedly in the past year and a half to block an expansion of childrens health insurance, spending bills, stem-cell research and timelines for the Iraq War.
The bill failed on suspension because the Democrats were three votes shy of a two-thirds majority. On the second try the next day, the bill passed 274-137, still shy of the 290 votes needed to ensure a veto override if all Members are present.
Its stunning when you think about the suffering in their own districts, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in an interview.
She held out hope that Democrats could override the president. I dont view yesterdays vote as an impossible override, and I hope the president would rethink his position. He signed a bill extending unemployment benefits in 2002.
Nonetheless, the setback appeared to put a crimp in House Democrats plans to extract unemployment insurance from the battle over the $250 billion war supplemental. House leaders have planned to drop unemployment from the war bill expected on the House floor Wednesday to get the larger bill signed by Bush. But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) made it clear last week that he would put it back in and would not spend much time trying to force a stand-alone unemployment bill to the floor.
This is about leverage on the supplemental, a House Republican aide said. The Speaker and Harry Reid are playing a little game back and forth of how much they can get passed. The aide said that by showing that House Republicans could block a bill, they maximized their leverage on the supplemental, one of the last must-pass bills of the year.
The GOP and the Bush administration have resisted extending unemployment benefits for months, but House Republicans modified their position after the latest unemployment surge.
They say they support an extension of benefits only in states with high unemployment and only for people who had worked for at least 20 weeks before being laid off.
The Democratic plan is an irresponsible use of taxpayers funds, Boehner said. Americans who work hard every day dont want their dollars squandered.
Two hours before the first vote on the bill, Blunt predicted that his members would have a veto-sustaining minority, and he was right.
The Democrats folly, he said, is to assume that if they bring a bill to the floor with a good title, the American people will never figure out if its a good bill or not, he said. I think our Members can explain that.
He said unemployment benefits may discourage people from actively looking for work.
But Pelosi rejected the idea of accepting a more limited Republican proposal.
Roll Call has launched a new feature, Hill Navigator, to advise congressional staffers and would-be staffers on how to manage workplace issues on Capitol Hill. Please send us your questions anything from office etiquette, to handling awkward moments, to what happens when the work life gets too personal. Submissions will be treated anonymously.