- The Washington Times - Monday, March 31, 2014

Senate Democrats are launching their fourth try to extend benefits for the long-term unemployed, signaling just how much political payoff they think the issue offers in an election year — though analysts said it may not be enough to grab the spotlight away from issues like Obamacare.

In the latest chapter of a nearly three-month effort, senators agreed by voice vote Monday to take up a five-month extension of federal unemployment insurance, which would be retroactive to when benefits expired Dec. 28.

Though previous efforts to renew the benefits have failed, the latest plan is expected to pass the Senate on the strength of five Republican co-sponsors.

“I’m confident we’ll pass this legislation in the Senate this week here, and hopefully, the Republicans in the House will have the soft hearts and strong minds to allow this to pass over there,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat. “Perhaps then these struggling Americans will finally get the relief they deserve.”

Following the vote, Mr. Reid immediately blocked all amendments on the bill.

But Lara Brown, an associate professor in the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University, said social programs such as unemployment insurance affect too few people to have a major political impact.

“They can be used in a campaign argument to sort of demonize the other side and make the Republicans look stingy,” she said. “But neither of those impact enough people to really sway the electorate.”

While more than 2 million people stand to gain benefits if Congress is able to pass an extension, issues that affect the entire country tend to be a “much louder counter-message,” and will likely play a larger role in the elections, Ms. Brown said.

“I think the real question is, what will it be up against as an alternative message. It’s going to be up against something like the Affordable Care Act, which has gotten much more attention and much more controversy, and up against foreign-policy issues, with respect to things like [President Vladimir] Putin and Russia,” she said. “Those tend to command more attention than this issue.”

By campaigning on topics such as raising the minimum wage, unemployment benefits, and pay gaps between men and women, Democrats are hoping to bring voters to the polls with the same message that re-elected President Obama in 2012, said Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist.

“These are the kind of issues the Democrats are going to use, to not only rally the base as we head into elections in November, but also as a way to contrast with the priorities of Republicans,” he said. “It’s always much harder to turn out your base in an off-term election like this, so these are the kinds of things you need to do to bring folks to the polls in November.”

While the five-month extension is expected to pass the Senate this week, House Speaker John A. Boehner has said he won’t bring it up for a vote in his chamber. He has said he would only accept a bill that includes other measures aimed at creating jobs.

Mr. Manley, though, said if Mr. Boehner were to let a bill reach the floor, it would strip Democrats of their message that the Republicans don’t care about unemployed Americans.

“It seems to me it’s awfully easy just to accept it and stop giving Democrats a talking point,” he said.

If Senate Democrats can’t pressure the House Republicans to pass the measure before June 1, when the extension would expire, lawmakers would be out of options, Mr. Manley said.

“If House Republicans really do vote against it, there’s not much Senate Democrats can do except use it to rally folks heading into the election cycles,” he said.

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