Will Unemployment Insurance Come Back to Haunt the GOP?

WASHINGTON – The marathon dance featuring Senate Democrats and Republicans over extending unemployment benefits for 1.7 million out-of-work Americans will likely continue unabated for a while as the two factions measure the potential political impact.

Democrats, unified in support of the three-month extension, are using the inability to get a measure passed to paint reluctant Republicans in an unbecoming light, with Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, of Nevada, proclaiming Wednesday that GOP lawmakers “don’t care” about struggling workers.

Republicans, meanwhile, offer several rationales for their opposition, generally ranging from adding to the budget deficit to Reid’s move limiting the party’s ability to amend the extension bill.

"Unfortunately, Democrats did not work with us, wouldn't negotiate with us on how to pay for it," Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) said on Meet the Press on Sunday. "We also have record numbers of people long-term unemployed. And the Democratic answer to that is, 'Let's add more to the 26 weeks of unemployment insurance to emergency benefits, and let's do nothing to reform the program. Let's do nothing to give people the skills they need to access the jobs that are out there.'"

What’s clear is Democrats to this point are winning the contest in the eyes of the judges – the American public. A recent Fox News poll shows that 69 percent of people think unemployment insurance should last at least a year – far longer than the current 26 weeks.

Another survey released in January, this from Quinnipiac University, showed that 58 percent of those questioned nationwide, all registered voters, expressed support for a three-month extension.

But the real impact might be most severe on a state-by-state basis. Republicans, who currently hold 45 of the upper chamber’s 100 seats, are given a good chance of taking control of the Senate after the November elections, given the number of Democratic retirements and vulnerable seats. It’s possible that the unemployment insurance debate could get in the way of those plans.

Take the case of Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), who still has two years to serve before seeking re-election and opposes the extension, as a barometer. A survey released by Public Policy Polling – a Democratic firm – shows a majority of Illinois residents – 63 percent -- in favor of reinstating jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed. Of those polled, 40 percent said Kirk's vote makes them less likely to support him in the future while 31 percent think they would be more likely to support him.

And some candidates already are using the issue to nibble at the heels of GOP incumbents, indicating the issue might have legs. Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Kentucky secretary of state challenging Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell – if he survives a primary confrontation – in the fall has attacked him for opposing the extension.

"It is shameful that after failing for nearly 30 years to offer a credible plan to put Kentucky back to work, Mitch McConnell has the audacity to laugh in the faces of more than 18,000 unemployed Kentuckians, including 1,200 coal miners in Pike County,” Grimes said in a statement. “The people of Kentucky deserve a Senator they can be proud of — not one who offensively looks down upon our people and is an embarrassment to the values we hold dear. We take care of our own in this state.”

Democrats have sought to pass unemployment insurance legislation five times already this year, failing at each attempt. The most recent effort came on Feb. 4, when Republican lawmakers once again blocked a three-month extension at a cost of $6.4 billion.