President Obama used his bully pulpit Monday to blast Republicans for holding up a bill to reauthorize extended unemployment benefits, one day before the Senate will try once again to restore aid to the 2.5 million long-term jobless Americans who have missed checks since May.
"A majority of Senators have tried not once, not twice, but three times to extend emergency relief on a temporary basis," Obama said from the Rose Garden, surrounded by a handful of individuals whose unemployment insurance had run out because of senatorial dithering. "Each time a partisan minority in the Senate has used parliamentary maneuvers to block a vote denying millions of people who are out of work much ended relief. These leaders in the Senate who are advancing a misguided notion that emergency relief somehow discourages people from finding a job should talk to these folks. That attitude, I think, reflects a lack of faith in the American people."
Senate Republicans, with an assist from Nebraska Democrat Ben Nelson, have insisted that the $33 billion cost of reauthorizing the extended benefits not add to the federal budget deficit and have offered alternative bills to pay for the benefits by slashing spending elsewhere.
"Democrats have refused over and over again to extend additional unemployment insurance in a way that won't add to an already unsustainable national debt," said Don Stewart, a spokesman for Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the Republican leader in the Senate. "Everyone agrees on extending the additional unemployment insurance, but the Democrat way is to insist we add it to the national debt at the same time--while blocking Republican efforts to pass the same extension without the debt. Remember, this is the same crowd that said if we just borrowed a trillion dollars for the stimulus bill, the unemployment rate would be down to 7.5 percent by now."
As Obama and congressional Democrats have been eager to point out, Republicans do not apply the same fiscal discipline when it comes to the Bush administration's soon-to-expire tax cuts for the wealthy. Letting the tax cuts expire would save $678 billion over ten years, according to the Office of Management and Budget.
"After years of championing policies that turned a record surplus into a massive deficit, the same people who didn't have any problem spending hundreds of billions of dollars on tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans are now saying we shouldn't offer relief to middle class Americans like Jim, or Leslie, or Denise, who really do need help," Obama said, referring to three people who joined him in the Rose Garden.
A top Senate Republican aide questioned Obama's timing, since Senate Democrats expect to succeed in breaking the GOP filibuster on Tuesday, thanks to the newly-appointed replacement for the late Sen. Robert Byrd (W.Va.).
"What the hell?" the aide asked. "They're going to get that vote tomorrow at 2:30 now that they will have a new Dem Senator. It's already scheduled. It's like the President is going to call for the sun to rise in the east."
The administration's defenders argued that it was both helpful and productive to have the president draw a contrast between the two parties on this issue. The White House actually saw an entry to engage more aggressively in the debate last week, when Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), the second-ranking Republican in the Senate, argued that tax cuts for the wealthy should be passed without offsetting the costs, while UI had to be paid for in full. Aides in the White House's communications shop immediately jumped on the exchange and emailed it to reporters, distilling it to a simple narrative: "For unemployed, you have to pay. For millionaires you don't."
By week's end, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs had mentioned Kyl's remarks several times, while President Obama himself highlighted the contrast during his weekly radio address. Monday's speech was supposed put a crest to the campaign, with aides on the Hill acknowledging that the president was deliberately injecting political heat into the discussion.
"It's all about making [Republicans] pay a price," said a top Senate Democratic aide.
Reflecting the politics that have metastasized around the unemployment insurance debate, on Monday morning Florida Senate candidate Marco Rubio scoffed at the idea that an extension would serve as a form of economic stimulus.
"I don't think anyone can say that with a straight face," said the Tea Party candidate, who also echoed Kyl's points about paying for unemployment benefits but not tax cuts for the rich.
Actually, many serious, straight-faced people have argued for the stimulative effect of jobless aid. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that for every dollar the government spent on aid to the unemployed, the economy would see output rise by between $0.70 to $1.90 -- the biggest bang for buck of any government stimulus policy. Reducing income taxes in 2011 (Rubio's preferred solution) would result in $0.10 to $0.40 in economic output per dollar spent.
"[R]educing payroll taxes for firms that increase payroll or increasing aid to the unemployed," the CBO reported, "would have the largest effects on output and employment per dollar of budgetary cost in 2010 and 2011."
Mark Zandi, the chief economist at Moody's Analytics and an adviser to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) during the 2008 campaign, said the same thing: "No form of the fiscal stimulus has proved more effective during the past two years than emergency UI benefits," he said.
Several Republicans -- and even some Democrats -- have suggested that the extended unemployment benefits, which in some states gave the unemployed 99 weeks of benefits, make the jobless lazy. Obama attacked those arguments on Monday.
"The Americans I hear from in letters and meet in town halls -- Americans like the ones here today -- they aren't looking for a handout," the president said. "It's not that they don't want to work. They desperately do. They just can't find a job. They're honest, decent, hardworking folks who've fallen on hard times through no fault of their own; who have nowhere else to turn except unemployment benefits; who need emergency relief to help them weather this economic storm."