Unemployment Issue Settled, for Now

Posted July 21, 2010 at 6:36pm

Congressional Democrats have gleefully pounded on Republicans over their filibuster of an unemployment benefits extension, but now that a scaled-back measure is heading toward final passage, the issue appears likely to go dormant until after the November elections.

Instead, Democratic leaders in both chambers are expected to use September to move a handful of measures aimed at stimulating the economy — ranging from middle-class tax cuts to another set of jobs bills — in an effort to give Democrats some momentum going into the midterm elections.

“We’ve got middle-class tax cuts, we’ve got job creation and other issues that align not only with where voters are but where Democrats are, that we can and we will bring up in September,” a senior Democratic leadership aide said.

And while unemployment insurance remains a key talking point for Democrats, the aide acknowledged, it would be just one of several issues that they hit on this fall. “I definitely think that it will be a factor, but I don’t think it will be the winning bullet,” the aide said.

The Senate on Wednesday passed a measure extending the benefits until the end of November, and the House is expected to give its approval today, sending the legislation to the president and concluding a long partisan standoff.

Sen. Carl Levin said that while he would have preferred to pass a longer extension, it will have to wait. “I wish we could do it longer, but it was the best we could do,” the Michigan Democrat said. “We’ll have to do this again in November.”

But the Senate Democratic leadership’s focus on pursuing legislative wins — rather than simply battling with Republicans to highlight their obstruction — will come as good news to rank-and-file Democrats.

Following Democrats’ weekly chairmen’s lunch on Wednesday, Sen. Jay Rockefeller said his party is continuing to search for a way to craft a positive message.

“We’re trying to figure out, can we do anything, can we pass anything, because the idea is that [Republicans] are going to stop all legislation,” the West Virginia Democrat said.

He noted that Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), whose efforts to pass energy legislation have been stymied by GOP opposition, argued for “the need to have a message and what kind of message you have when you can’t get anything done.”

When asked what would constitute a legislative win this year, Levin pointed to the defense authorization bill, which is traditionally a must-pass measure.

“Hopefully we’ll set it up to get done first thing [in September] if we don’t get it done this period,” he said.

Likewise, Democrats are planning to push a series of “Make It in America” jobs bills in the House, where frustration with the Senate remains high.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson (Conn.) said Democrats in that chamber were frustrated with Senate inaction and were eagerly anticipating Senate passage of an unemployment benefits extension.

“As Democrats, we look forward to it. We can’t account for the inability of the Senate to do just about anything,” Larson said, noting that there were “more than 300 bills over there that they haven’t even taken up.”

However, some House Democrats in competitive races said they would be glad to vote again — even close to the election — to extend unemployment benefits because they think the issue gives them an opportunity to paint a contrast with Republicans that will resonate with voters.

“This is one of the better examples of the choice that people will have in November,” said Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who heads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s incumbent retention program.

“They can support Republicans, who want to take us backward and backslide toward the Bush era and who refuse to recognize that people need a bridge to the next job … or they can support an incumbent Democrat who recognizes that we need to make sure we provide that bridge and assistance.”

Rep. Dina Titus, one of the DCCC’s “Frontline” program candidates, said she would have no trouble supporting another round of unemployment benefits, even before the election.

“I’m hoping the economy looks a little better by November, but I would support it again,” the Nevada Democrat said.

Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Bob Menendez said that regardless of what is on the agenda, Democrats need to set up a contrast with Republicans.

“I don’t know whether we’re talking about wins or we are talking about setting up contrasts,” the New Jersey Democrat said. “We’d like them to be wins, but I also think there’s an opportunity to set up contrasts between us and the Republicans on things we may not have the votes to get but at the end of the day show the difference between where we stand where they do.”

Emily Pierce and Jessica Brady contributed to this report.