Much of the country kicked off the New Year with heavy snowstorms followed by a blast of frigid cold temperatures. But for 1.3 million Americans, whose unemployment checks have been cut off, this may be the coldest winter of all.
Congress returns on Monday, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid says he will schedule a vote on extending unemployment benefits. But the outcome is uncertain. Many Republicans in both houses of Congress are opposed to extending benefits; especially those in the GOP-controlled House of Representatives. One administration official predicted Wednesday that failure to extend emergency unemployment insurance through 2014 will have a negative impact on 14 million Americans. It will also have an adverse effect on the nation's slowly recovering economy because those affected will not be able to buy food and supplies.
Republicans, led by their Tea Party wing, have staked out a series of positions that, when viewed on whole, may leave them vulnerable in future elections. The president has proposed raising the federal minimum wage to $10.10, which one recent study says will lift 5 million people out of poverty. Republicans argue against such a move because they believe it is inflationary and it will end up costing jobs.
Congressional Republicans are also sparring with Democrats over their desire to rein in food stamps, citing cost, fraud and abuse. But a recent statistical report released by the Department of Agriculture shows that the amount of food stamps given out in error is at an all time low, about 3 percent. In 2000 the error rate was nearly 9 percent.
On Tuesday, a federal judge struck down a Florida law that required welfare applicants to undergo mandatory drug testing. Republican Governor Rick Scott campaigned on the issue, and got the law enacted, arguing that it would ensure tax money was not going to illegal drugs. A subsequent state study found that only 108 out of 4,086 people tested, 2.6 percent, were using narcotics. The state records show that the program was costing more than it was saving. Yet several other Republican-dominated states have enacted a similar law, and Governor Scott has said the state will appeal the ruling.
The Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, has been under attack from Republicans since it before it became law. House Republicans have voted nearly 50 times to repeal the law. The ACA, which got off to a terrible start due to problems with the federal website, provides many benefits. It requires insurers to cover people with preexisting conditions, it ends lifetime or yearly caps on coverage, it makes it illegal for insurers to drop someone because they get sick, and it extends coverage to children under 26. Most importantly, it gives 40 million uninsured Americans access to health care coverage, and it has already reduced the soaring growth of health care costs. Yet Republicans do not have a plan to replace any of these benefits should their repeal efforts actually become successful.
Conservative Republicans are opposed to meaningful immigration reform. There are now more than 11 million immigrants living illegally in the United States. Hispanics and other minorities, who largely vote for Democrats, have been pushing for legislation to no avail. Meanwhile, many Republican controlled states have enacted tough voter identification laws, citing massive voter fraud. But the reported incidents of voter fraud in these states are actually minuscule. Yet these laws fall disproportionately hard on minorities and the elderly, groups that vote for Democrats.
Following President Barack Obama's reelection and important Republican Congressional loses in the 2012 national elections, GOP Chairman Reince Priebus released an autopsy report assessing the reasons for the party's poor performance. The findings were blunt. At one point the report says the voters believe that "the GOP does not care about them and is doing great harm."
It appears that the report has fallen on deaf ears.