After spending two months on the defensive over ObamaCare, Democrats are back on the attack. And with another budget deadline looming early in the new year, they're signaling that they're not about to let up — even it it means pushing Republicans toward another government shutdown.
Senate and House negotiators are working toward a reportedly small budget deal that would undo some of the sequester, across-the-board spending cuts that have taken a bite out of the economic recovery. But believing the odds are tilted in their favor, Democratic leaders have suggested they may insist that an extension of emergency unemployment benefits also be part of a final deal.
"We cannot, cannot support a budget agreement that does not include unemployment insurance," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said at a Thursday hearing. "It would undermine who we are as a country."
Pelosi later walked back her firm stance, saying that though she would prefer unemployment insurance to be part of the deal, "it could be separate from that." But the hard line, and the actions of other leading Democrats, nevertheless stoked the notion that the party is willing to play hard ball.
On the same day, the White House released a report touting the economic benefits of an unemployment benefits extension, and President Obama said the same in his big income inequality speech one day prior. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), the party's ranking member on the House Budget Committee, directly compared the cost of an extension to the estimated $24 billion the economy lost during the last shutdown — hardly a subtle message.
A senior Democratic aide, meanwhile, told The Nation's George Zornick that the issue was "still very much in the mix" of the budget talks between Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.).
Congress authorized the Emergency Unemployment Compensation program in 2008, and has repeatedly extended it with steadily decreasing benefits. It's due to expire at the end of the year though, hence Democrats' concerted push now. And even though the House isn't known for passing Democratic-friendly legislation, Democrats think they have enough leverage to force the issue.
For one, any deal that raises spending above sequester-mandated levels would likely lose a swath of GOP support, which means Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) would have to seek out Democratic votes anyway. And the more Boehner needs to rely on Democratic votes, the thinking goes, the more concessions Democrats can demand.
Plus, Republicans are eager to undo the deep cuts scheduled to hit the Defense Department next year. Though pro-defense GOPers have quietly accepted the past cuts, the next round will cut deeper, so they're now "openly itching for a budget deal," wrote New York's Jonathan Chait, "as are the Republicans who have to actually draw up the cuts to domestic spending required by sequestration."
"The Republican dissidents, combined with Democrats, form a potential majority in the House in favor of undoing sequestration," he added.
Then there's recent history. Republicans ruined their party's approval rating by forcing the October government shutdown, and they're loath to repeat that catastrophe.
"A government shutdown is off the table," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in October. "We're not going to do it."
Still, if the Democrats push too hard, Republicans could simply walk away, paving the way for another shutdown.
However, Boehner has said he would "surely entertain taking a looking at" a benefits extension, so there is at least a chance Republicans could go along with such an effort.
And there's always the possibility that all this noise will "turn out to be kabuki," wrote the Washington Post's Greg Sargent.
House Democrats are on record talking extensively about how the sequester is dragging down the recovery. So if Senate Democrats do reach a deal with Paul Ryan to replace it, and Republican leaders adamantly refuse to extend unemployment benefits, it could prove difficult for House Democrats to stand in the way of passing something easing the sequester. This would put House Dems in the position of making a very difficult choice. [Washington Post]
Democrats think they have an edge in the budget talks. We'll soon see if they truly intend to use it.