White House National Economic Council Chairman Gene Sperling speaks during the daily briefing at the White House on Monday. With Congress back, the Senate is expected to work on a three-month extension of benefits for the long-term unemployed.
President Obama and fellow Democrats, just back from a long holiday break, are immediately embracing a legislative agenda that would increase the minimum wage and extend unemployment insurance benefits to an estimated 1.3 million long-term jobless in America.
And the push — outlined by the president in his weekly address to the nation, and taken up Monday by Democrats in the Senate — has received strong pushback from Republicans who charge that the pivot is nothing more than a politically motivated effort to distract the public from the still-troubled health care law rollout.
The politics of the move are self-evident: Obama and Democrats seem energized by the opportunity to tackle issues on which polls show a majority of Americans tend to agree with the president and his party.
A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, for example, found that 63 percent of Americans surveyed supported raising the nation's required minimum hourly wage from $7.25 to $10.10, as Democrats have proposed. Recent polls by Democratic-affiliated firms suggest there is also majority-plus support for extending unemployment benefits, though the national sentiment is less clear.
This week Obama and congressional Democrats, joined by union and other liberal advocacy groups, plan a series of events, including a White House meeting Tuesday between the president and a group of unemployed workers, a Wednesday rally of unemployed workers and activists in Washington, and heavy lobbying on Capitol Hill.
Hill action began with an effort by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to corral all 55 Democrats and at least five Republicans to ensure a filibuster-proof majority in support of reinstating unemployment assistance for the long-term unemployed. A test vote was expected to come Monday evening, unless senators' weather-related travel problems conspire to push it to Tuesday.
But even if the measure passes the Senate, GOP House Speaker John Boehner has said any extension of unemployment benefits has to be offset by spending cuts.
Bill Samuel, chief lobbyist for the AFL-CIO, said his organization is "very focused on the unemployment insurance issue." Its state leaders have reached out to senators, Samuel says: "We hope to have thousands of phone calls made to undecided senators."
Republican groups have responded in kind. The conservative Club for Growth and Heritage Action for America on Monday warned Republican senators that a "yes" vote on the measure to reinstate emergency unemployment benefits would be noted in their influential annual scorecards.
Extending benefits for three months, as the Senate bill proposes, "would cost taxpayers $6.555 billion," Heritage Action asserted, adding that "even if lawmakers attempt to offset this new spending with real cuts elsewhere, they would still be throwing taxpayer money at an ineffective and wasteful program."
On Monday, the Senate postponed until Tuesday a vote on the benefits extension bill, co-sponsored by Democratic Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island and Republican Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada.