POLITICS

Congress Has No Plans To Stay In D.C. To Deal With Unemployment

01/17/2014 12:01 am ET | Updated Jan 25, 2014

WASHINGTON -- Despite demanding House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) keep the House of Representatives in session to deal with expired unemployment insurance, Democratic lawmakers aren't going to hang around now that the House has adjourned.

House lawmakers will leave town for 10 days without having considered legislation to restore compensation to the 1.3 million people whose benefits expired in December. Boehner, for his part, is off to a fundraiser in unemployment-ridden Las Vegas for Rep. Joe Heck (R-Nev.).

Democrats said they wanted to stay to work out a deal with Republicans. But HuffPost contacted dozens of them, and of those who responded, none said they would stay in D.C. now that there won't be any official House action. Most said they could accomplish more at home than in Washington.

"I have plenty of work I need to be doing in my district," Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.) told HuffPost in an interview. "But I will make every effort to galvanize, activate, organize people to keep the pressure on Speaker Boehner and the Republican leadership to have something ready when we return from this work period."

Davis is one of more than 100 House Democrats who signed a letter by Rep. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) asking Boehner to keep the House in session. HuffPost reached out to members who signed the letter to ask if they would stay to draw attention to the issue regardless of whether the House adjourned.

Rep. Sandy Levin (D-Mich.), the highest-ranking Democrat on the House committee that oversees unemployment insurance, has been making noise about the expiration of federal benefits since early November.

“Republicans should absolutely have stayed in Washington and allowed a vote to extend unemployment insurance -- that’s why Rep. Levin signed that letter," Levin spokesman Josh Drobnyk said in an email. "And now that Republicans have left, Rep. Levin will be highlighting at home how the Republican opposition to renewing the program has harmed millions of Americans laid off through no fault of their own."

Without the power to force a House vote on the benefits, earlier this month Levin outlined the Democrats' strategy: widely distribute information about the lapsed benefits, track the coverage in local papers, and push stories about individual workers to the forefront to pressure Republicans.

Staying in Washington while the House is out of session would have represented a new tactic in Democrats' continuous efforts to bludgeon Republicans for not caring about unemployed people. And it wouldn't have been unprecedented: During the 2008 August recess, Republicans occupied a darkened House chamber to demand more domestic oil production as consumers dealt with rising gas prices. The stunt contributed to a broader effort that eventually won concessions from Democrats.

"In a matter of months, Republicans turned offshore oil drilling from a non-issue -- even one feared as a political liability by many Republicans in Congress -- into political gold as anger over high gasoline prices made voters receptive to calls for more domestic energy production," The Associated Press reported the following September.

Between Christmas and the new year, 1.3 million workers who'd been receiving long-term unemployment insurance from the federal government had their benefits cut off. Each week, as Democrats have pointed out in a series of press conferences, another 70,000 workers reach the end of six months' worth of state-funded unemployment insurance to discover no more help is available.

Previously, workers in states with the highest unemployment rates could get as many as an additional 47 weeks of federal benefits. During recessions Congress routinely provides extra weeks of assistance, then pulls them away as the economy improves. As Democrats have pointed out, Congress has never dropped the benefits with long-term unemployment as bad as it is now, with nearly 4 million workers jobless longer than six months.

Democratic aides said the Peters letter had been in the works since early this week, before a bill to reauthorize the benefits failed in a fateful Senate vote on Tuesday. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) announced via Twitter Thursday that the Senate would vote again after next week.

Democrats had hoped a successful Senate vote would have made it harder for Boehner to resist a House vote, especially with more than half the Democratic caucus pushing to cancel a recess.

"If the Speaker insists on playing politics instead of working towards a common sense solution to extend unemployment benefits," Peters spokeswoman Tatiana Winograd said, "Rep. Peters believes Michiganders would be better served if he goes home to address this issue with folks directly affected by this Washington gridlock.”

Boehner's office had no comment on the letter. The speaker said Thursday at a press conference that he has yet to see a plan to reauthorize the benefits that also met the House GOP's demand for additional measures "that would actually help grow the economy."

Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.) lamented in a statement that he and his colleagues had "failed to persuade Speaker Boehner to stay in session" to renew the unemployment insurance benefits.

“He pulled the plug and shut us down,” Garamendi said.

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