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Both Parties Plot Jobless Benefits Strategies

With unemployment benefits set to expire Monday, Senate Democrats and Republicans are each hoping to use the Senate’s inability to pass a short-term extension to their advantage.

Although passage of health care reform and the spring recess have distracted lawmakers, operatives in both parties acknowledged that starting Monday, Democrats and Republicans alike will begin pushing the issue of safety-net unemployment benefits.

“We’ll start ramping up next week … you’ll start seeing more pressure next week,” a senior Democratic aide said.

For Senate Republicans, the upcoming political fight over unemployment benefits could represent an opportunity to undo some of the damage caused by Sen. Jim Bunning’s (R-Ky.) recent one-man filibuster of a similar extension.

A GOP leadership aide said that while “unemployment and welfare have traditionally been Democratic issues,” Republicans believe the inability of Democrats to pass an extension last week can play to their favor.

As Senate Democrats were celebrating passage of the last pieces of President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul Thursday, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) took to the floor to force a debate on paying for a planned one-month extension to the benefits.

The move — which Democrats have acknowledged took Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) off guard — touched off hours of tense negotiations between Republicans and Democrats.

Although Reid and McConnell ultimately agreed to pass a one-week extension to the program — which expires April 5 — House Democrats quickly scuttled that plan and Senate Democrats eventually voted nearly unanimously to adjourn without extending the benefits.

As part of their strategy to turn the issue their way, Senate Republicans have been quietly working to put the blame squarely on the shoulders of Democrats.

For instance, McConnell’s office has provided GOP lawmakers with talking points emphasizing the fact that House Democrats killed a one-week, fully paid-for extension of the unemployment program, and that almost the entire Democratic Conference voted to adjourn for the spring recess while Senate Republicans all voted to stay in session. Although the GOP may not make a major push, lawmakers over the next several days are expected to make their case in local and regional media markets. “Locally … where these stories make the most difference, Senators are armed with the facts,” the GOP leadership aide said.

Republicans will cast themselves as looking to enforce fiscal discipline on Congress while also passing an extension to unemployment insurance.

“No matter how hard Senate Democrats try to put this back in the box, the reality is if people miss a single dime of benefit, it’s because [Speaker] Nancy Pelosi’s [D-Calif.] office chose to make an issue out of it, rather than agreeing to solve the problem,” a second GOP operative said.

Additionally, Republican operatives have been quietly making their case to media outlets and will ramp up those efforts as the April 5 expiration of the insurance program looms larger. For example, McConnell’s office plans to circulate a memo titled “Move To Extend Jobless Benefits ‘Quashed By Democrats’” that catalogs news stories detailing the decision by House Democrats to reject the Senate compromise.

“In the end, I don’t know how you spin around everyone voting to get out of town” before an extension was passed, a Senate GOP leadership aide said, arguing that as a result, “Democrats know they have a huge liability now that they didn’t have last time.”

Democrats dismissed the Republicans’ strategy, arguing that while it would have been preferable for either the House to have agreed to the one-week deal — or for Senate Democrats to have remained in session — Republicans are ultimately to blame.

“There are 10 different ways that I would have preferred for this to turn out, and this isn’t one of them,” a Democratic operative said, adding, “At the end of the day, they’re still the ones that are blocking this.”

This operative also dismissed Republicans’ claims that they are looking to instill fiscal discipline on Congress, arguing that the only time in recent years the GOP has sought to tighten the federal belt “is when it hurts poor and middle-class working people.”

Reid spokesman Rodell Mollineau also rejected the Republicans’ strategy — and their broader argument that their objections to the original extension were based on a desire for fiscal discipline.

“Americans who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own do not deserve to bear the brunt of payback politics or some hypocritical Johnny-come-lately stance on spending. When we return on [April 12] we will have a vote on extending these critical provisions and the American people will plainly see who is and who is not on their side,” Mollineau said.

According to talking points circulated by Reid’s office, Democrats next week will push to paint the GOP as openly hostile toward the middle class, accusing Republicans of “taking out their anger on the unemployed” for the defeat in the health care fight.

Reid’s office instructs Members to use phrases like “they lost that battle and many on the other side are angry and frustrated. And they have begun casting around for a target for that anger and frustration,” and “Republicans should not take out their anger on the least fortunate, which is exactly what they are doing. They should not kick the unemployed while they’re down.”

To blunt GOP demands for fiscal restraint, Democrats are also directed to argue that given the economic situation, unemployment insurance is an emergency and therefore does not need to be offset.

“They say this package must be paid for. We believe this is an emergency and we should deal with it as previous Congresses have dealt with it — as emergency spending,” the talking points say.

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