Wary of the cost-cutting mood on Capitol Hill and worried that it might get lost in the shuffle of other legislative priorities, Democrats are laying the groundwork for an end-of-year fight over extending emergency unemployment insurance benefits.
The current one-year extension expires Dec. 31, and Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee on Thursday introduced a bill that would extend benefits through the end of 2012.
Democrats are ramping up their messaging on the issue, declining to wait for the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction to address it. Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) has also introduced companion legislation, and a Senate Finance Committee hearing on the matter is scheduled for Thursday.
"We're concerned that we make sure that unemployment insurance is extended," House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said. "We're going to lose 1 million people in January and 2.5 million by February. It's important that we give the struggling economy the ability to create jobs and don't let people fall through the cracks."
The super committee's plan is due Nov. 23, but Members on the panel have been tight-lipped about the specifics of their deliberations. Committee Co-Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) on Thursday declined to say whether the group is discussing extending unemployment benefits.
Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) said his colleagues should not wait to find out.
"You don't wait for the super committee because the super committee does not have a good chance of success," Frank said. "The super committee is irrelevant. [An unemployment insurance extension] is a highly important issue; it should be done as soon as it can."
An extension is part of President Barack Obama's American Jobs Act, but the proposal has little chance of success in either chamber and has already been snubbed in both.
A spokesman for House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.), who also sits on the super committee, indicated that the matter has been discussed, at least at the Ways and Means committee level.
"Real action is needed to help the unemployed get back to work, and we should reform the UI system by taking steps that result in more folks collecting paychecks instead of unemployment checks," the spokesman said in a statement. "But rather than address those much-needed reforms, this latest proposal from Congressional Democrats leaves you wondering. First, why didn't they support the president's approach and second, how do they intend to pay for this $50 billion bill?"
Ways and Means ranking member Sander Levin, who co-sponsored the Democrats' measure, conceded that there is no cost offset in the $45 billion bill, but he said Democrats are willing to negotiate.
"We're willing to discuss that, but it needs to happen one way or another," the Michigan Democrat said. "There are various ways to bring it up, but it should not be left to the last minute and it should not be used as a bargaining tool."
One of those ways — passing an extension through the Appropriations Committee — may be unlikely. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, who chairs the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government, said she "can't envision" such an "expensive" measure going through the committee.
"It makes sense to do it in the super committee," the Missouri Republican said.
Extending unemployment insurance has traditionally had strong bipartisan support, particularly during recessions or other periods of high unemployment. But in the past several years Republicans have defied demands for unpaid-for extensions.
Last year, then-Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) launched a one-man filibuster of such a bill. Initially, his GOP colleagues harshly criticized him, fearing an angry backlash from voters. And while there was indeed an outcry, Republicans did not feel the kind of political pain many had expected.
Rep. Joe Crowley, a member of the Ways and Means Committee, said it would not be "beyond the pale" for Republicans to drag out the issue to Christmas or hold it up entirely.
"I don't think anything is beyond the pale anymore. I think anything is possible," the New York Democrat said. "If they want to play Scrooge, they're welcome to it."
For their part, rank-and-file Republicans said although they do expect an end-of-year battle, the issue hasn't been widely discussed.
"It's going to be a heavy lift. It's going to be a difficult one," said Republican Study Committee member Rep. Jason Chaffetz (Utah). "It's not something we've talked about recently. I haven't heard a peep about it."
Rep. Kevin Brady, a senior member of the Ways and Means Committee, said the silence on the issue likely has to do with Members waiting for the super committee to move.
"Right now the super committee is sucking up all of the oxygen" the Texas Republican said. "I think it's an indication that the super committee has such a broad jurisdiction that it's impacted the thought process of what needs to be done by the end of the year."
He added, "I'm sure it's on our radar; I don't know how much."
Jessica Brady and John Stanton contributed to this report.