01/08/2014 01:34 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Unemployed Americans Are Freezing In The Vortex Of Washington Politics

Alex Wong via Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- To save on heating costs, Katherine Hackett of Moodus, Conn., sets her thermostat at 58 degrees and wears a hat and coat in the house. The mother of two military veterans, one who served in Afghanistan, she scrimps on food week by week.

Hackett was in the East Room of the White House Tuesday, beside President Barack Obama, as a representative and a symbol of the more than 1.3 million long-term jobless who have run out of unemployment benefits.

Will she get the money she needs to tide her over as she continues to search for work?

That's far from clear. It’s going to take a change of weather in Congress, where a polar vortex of cynicism, mistrust and hyper-partisanship has frozen compassion and blinded common sense.

If Obama, Democrats and Republicans in Congress can fashion a deal to extend long-term unemployment benefits, the result could presage a welcome -- and surprising -- period of cooperation. For now, though, everyone assumes the worst about everyone else’s motives, and election-year tactical thinking remains the default setting.

Take the issue of whether an extension of benefits needs a budgetary “pay for” -- that is, an equivalent amount of spending cuts (or revenue increases) specifically designated to pay for the benefits. Republicans are demanding just such a pay-for and in the form of spending cuts. Democrats’ refusal, so far, to formally offer any pay-for ideas is evidence, Republicans say, that the president and his party are just looking for a 2014 campaign issue -- and not a real deal on benefits.

“It’s going to be like this all year,” said a top GOP leadership aide in the Senate. “Democrats will be putting up legislation designed to fail.

“The UI [unemployment insurance] vote is a perfect example,” the aide said. “Pay for it, and it passes right away with a lot of bipartisan support. But they don’t even try.

“This is the year of bills designed to fail so that the HuffPost and others will have headlines reading, 'Republicans Block XX ...'”

Democrats counter that Republicans are being disingenuous and hypocritical, feigning concern for the unemployed even though their top priority is to assuage their anti-government tea party base. The Democrats cite history to make their case: President George W. Bush, who claimed to be a “compassionate conservative,” didn’t ask for pay-fors when he successfully sought emergency extended benefits in late 2002. And earlier in the Obama years, budget deals took extended benefits into account on a larger balance sheet, but didn't provide a separate cut of the kind the GOP is demanding now.

Acknowledging as much, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) argues that the federal debt and deficit are now a more serious problem.

There's a chance -- faint for now -- that the combatants will back themselves into a benefits deal by posturing for political advantage: Democrats want to appear reasonable on the pay-for issue; Republicans don't want to seem cruel in the middle of winter.

Senate Democrats have offered to consider some pay-fors. Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, for example, suggested that extended benefits could be tied to ending tax giveaways to companies that "ship jobs overseas." But he has to know that a tax increase is a non-starter.

Even less seriously, McConnell proposed offsetting the new spending by delaying or repealing the Obamacare individual mandate.

On Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) tried out for the unaccustomed role of Solomon, briefly.

"Let me start by saying that I am opposed to offsetting the cost of emergency unemployment benefits. The five times President Bush extended emergency unemployment insurance, we never offset the cost. And we should not offset it now, when there is still only one job available for every three people seeking work," said Reid. "That said, Democrats are not unreasonable. We are willing to discuss reasonable ways to pay for a long-term extension of emergency benefits."

But then he went back on offense: "If Republicans are so interested in paying for this measure, they should propose a reasonable way to do so -- one that doesn’t attack the Affordable Care Act or punish American children. They should propose an offset that might actually pass. Instead they proposed a string of political amendments, each more doomed to failure than the last.

Republicans, including House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), have upped the ante by adding pet GOP ideas -- such as approval of the Keystone XL pipeline or delays in Obamacare -- to the unemployment bill.

Democrats “need to show a new openness to GOP bills that actually create jobs,” said a Boehner aide. “And to this point, they have shown no sign of doing that.”

As for the Democrats, they privately express confidence that they have the upper hand on the politics of unemployment benefits, no matter what the GOP does and no matter whether the bill ever passes.

“We have the issue,” said a Democratic consultant advising several 2014 Senate races. “If the Republicans agree, great. That seems unlikely. But either way, unemployment matters to our members -- and our voters.”

In other words, Katherine Hackett should keep the thermostat right where it is, at least for now.



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