Heavy lobbying efforts were underway Tuesday via social media to extend unemployment insurance for the more than 1 million long-term jobless. Tweeting under the hashtag #OutInTheCold, the progressive group UniteBlue launched a "twitterbomb" to draw attention to the Republican obstructionism that is currently leaving 1.3 million people "out in the cold." The hashtag reached the high water trending mark within a half an hour of the campaign's launch, reflecting the widespread concern over the issue and the anger around the growing wealth gap and poverty in America.
In a procedural Senate vote Tuesday, six Republicans - most from states with high unemployment - were forced to join with Democrats and two independents to bring a three-month extension bill to the floor for debate. Hard-line ultra-rightists are insisting that the cost be offset by a corresponding spending cut, which Democrats say could lead to another round of dead-end negotiations as Republicans have set their sites on abolishing social programs.
The White House said it would consider an offset for a longer extension but not for the three-month measure.
Sounding like a "One Note Johnny," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., offered an amendment that would delay the Affordable Care Act in exchange for the extension. It was defeated.
In remarks after the Senate vote, President Obama challenged the conservative ideology that vilifies the unemployed as "lazy."
"Now, I've heard the argument that says extending unemployment insurance will somehow hurt the unemployed because it saps their motivation to get a new job. I can't name a time where I met an American who would rather have an unemployment check than the pride of having a job," Obama said, interrupted by applause. "The long-term unemployed are not lazy. They're not lacking in motivation. They're coping with the aftermath of the worst economic crisis in generations."
Although the Senate may pass the three-month extension, there is a more uphill battle in the House as Speaker John Boehner, R-Ill., and his fellow Republicans use the fig leaf of the deficit to demand cuts in social programs. When Boehner says Republicans are "concerned with those having a difficult time trying to find a job. That's why we've passed dozens of jobs bills to try to help improve the economy so those jobs will be created," some in the media, for example Ed O'Keefe at the Washington Post, parrot it as "the House has passed dozens of proposals to spur economic growth, roll back federal regulations they believe are stifling growth and measures to establish new job training programs for the long-term unemployed."
Yet, the reality of the Republican "economic growth" agenda is more of the same pro-corporate "trickle down economics" that led to the 2007-2008 crisis and the longer term decline in living standards for most Americans. The Republicans couch their agenda of expanding tax cuts for the rich, shredding social safety net programs like food stamps, obstructing Obamacare, and abolishing laws that protect the environment, in terms like "pro-growth." That obscures the fact that it is pro-growth for billionaires and Wall Street, not for the majority of Americans and the overall economy .
According to the blog "The Price of Oil," taxpayers give an annual $14 billion to $52 billion in subsidies to the fossil fuel industry - Big Oil, Big Gas and Big Coal. When contacted, Illinois Republican Sen. Mark Kirk's office offered no comment on whether the senator would agree to cut these subsidies in order to pay for unemployment benefits. On Tuesday Kirk voted against against allowing a vote on extending benefits.
The six Republican senators who joined Democrats and defied the far-right wing of their party were Dean Heller of Nevada, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Dan Coats of Indiana, Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Rob Portman of Ohio. This is the first time in decades that Congress has refused to extend federal benefits during a post-recession recovery.
Labor and other groups are urging constituents to contact their senators and congressperson to demand passage of the extension without further cuts to social programs. To find out how to contact your lawmakers, go to "Emergency action urged on unemployment benefits."
Photo: This graph from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities shows how the failure to extend federal unemployment benefits could hurt up to 5 million workers through the end of 2014. (via cbpp.org)