Pelosi Prepared to Fight to Extend Unemployment Insurance, but Path to Victory Still Unclear

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi on Monday condemned GOP leadership's decision to skip town before passing an extension of emergency unemployment insurance, set to expire on Saturday.

The California Democrat did not, however, offer a clear path forward in terms of how she would force Speaker John A. Boehner's hand.

In an early afternoon conference call in which the minority leader was joined by other women of the House Democratic Caucus, Pelosi said she did not believe unemployment insurance needed to be "paid for."

"Workers pay into a system as they are working," she said. "We have always considered this an emergency that springs from a downturn in the economy and that, therefore, there does not need to be an offset to it.

"Let's fight one fight at a time," Pelosi added, "which is, we don't think it should be paid for."

But this is a sticking point for Republicans, and Boehner himself has said that he would be open to moving legislation to extend unemployment insurance only if the White House put forth a proposal that found reasonable offsets.

"I've not seen a plan from the White House that meets those standards," Boehner said at a news conference earlier this month.

Pelosi would not say specifically how Democrats would seek to gain leverage in the new year to force a vote on the House floor.

House Budget Committee ranking member Christopher Van Hollen, D-Md., suggested in the days before the chamber finished legislative business for the year that he might urge colleagues to withhold their votes on a farm bill reauthorization until Republicans promised to allow a vote on unemployment insurance, imagining that the farm bill would need Democratic votes to pass.

But Pelosi wouldn't say one way or the other Monday whether she was supportive of that strategy, and suggested that Van Hollen was perhaps looking to tie unemployment insurance to the farm bill where there could be opportunities for the elusive pay-for.

"I don't know what the votes are going to be for the farm bill, but I do know ... Van Hollen really sees an urgency for getting unemployment insurance matter settled and he is looking for wherever there is money," Pelosi said.

Whatever strategy might crystalize in January, however, Pelosi and the rest of the Democratic Caucus are sending a clear message to Republicans: Extend unemployment insurance aid immediately upon the start of the second session of the 113th Congress, or face a public relations nightmare.

They are already showing how prepared they are to tug at heartstrings. They invited Mary Lowe, a registered Republican from Irontown, Ohio, onto the call to share her struggles ahead of losing unemployment insurance three days after Christmas.

"When they left for the holiday recess before renewing this, they deliberately shut down my lifeline for my family," Lowe said through audible attempts to fight back tears. "I did call my congressman, Bill Johnson, before this ever came about. I've been calling, for, like, six weeks Speaker Boehner. And as a registered Republican in Ohio, I can't believe they left before extending this unemployment insurance."