Why Republicans may come around on extending unemployment benefits

Republicans aren't keen on extending benefits just yet. They're also not keen on blowing the midterm elections.

Rand Paul
(Image credit: (Bill Pugliano/Getty Images))

The Senate will hold a procedural vote Monday evening on a plan to extend emergency unemployment benefits by three months, and it's expected that almost all Republicans will team up to nix the proposal. And even if a handful of GOP Senators were to help Democrats advance the measure, the bill would face almost certain defeat in the House.

However, Republicans have signaled they're not necessarily opposed to any extension, but rather that they just don't like the current proposal since it wouldn't be offset with matching cuts or other compromises. And given that the party's 2014 strategy is primarily to avoid self-inflicted harm at all costs, it's not unthinkable that Republicans could soon be swayed into voting through an extension.

As of now, Republicans have a slight edge just under one year out from the midterm elections. The party, having seen how badly one big misstep can backfire (see: Government shutdown), is likely to tiptoe cautiously through 2014 to avoid making the same mistake again. Though that could make Republicans squeamish about touching significant legislation, unemployment benefits could be an early exception.

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Polls have consistently found that most Americans favor extending unemployment benefits. More pertinent to the elections, a late-December survey from left-leaning PPP found that two-thirds of voters in four swing districts, plus Speaker of the House John Boehner's (R-Ohio) home turf, favored extending benefits, too. And though most Republicans did not support an extension in that poll, Independents did in every district by at least an 18-point margin.

Likewise, other recent surveys have found majority support for extending unemployment benefits, with independents generally on board with that position.

That's the rub for Republicans: Though they would stand with their base in opposing an extension, they would do so at the risk of alienating everyone else. Hence, a number of Republicans have said in recent says they'd like to extend the benefits — but with some strings attached.

"I've always said that I'm not opposed to unemployment insurance, I am opposed to having it without paying for it," Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said Sunday on ABC.

Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) likewise said Sunday on CBS that he could back an extension if Democrats agreed to vague compromises like easing "burdensome regulations." And Boehner, too, has said he would be open to an extension with some conditions.

Democrats, meanwhile, are going on the offensive to keep the issue in the spotlight and put pressure on Republicans. Framing the debate as being between one party favoring benefits for the needy, and the other party opposing those same benefits, they think, is a winning campaign argument. Decrying a do-nothing GOP caucus at the same time would only be an added bonus.

Then again, Republican calls for compromise could be little more than pre-election posturing. Blocking unemployment benefits out of hand probably won't sit well with voters. But by blocking those benefits while claiming to back said benefits if paired with compromises, Republicans could deflect some of the blame from themselves, passing it along instead to everyone's favorite scapegoat: Dysfunctional Washington.

That said, it's unlikely that Republicans are angling for failure here. Even with an excuse in hand, voting down an unemployment extension would likely turn off the kind of middle-of-the-road voters that will prove crucial come November. The GOP left the 2012 election acknowledging it needed to better court independents to remain competitive in the future, and extending unemployment benefits would be a step in that direction.

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