Before leaving for recess, the Senate finally passed a bipartisan five-month extension of benefits for Americans who have been unemployed for six months or longer. Since the benefits lapsed at the beginning of 2014, more than 2 million workers have been affected, and the economy lost $3 billion in January and February alone.
Now the debate has shifted to the House, and this week Democrats are set to pressure Speaker John Boehner to take up the Senate bill. A fairly routine hearing of the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee was scheduled for Tuesday afternoon, where several prominent House Democrats would appear along with some long-term jobless Americans affected by the expiration.
But early Tuesday morning, hours before the scheduled hearing, Republican leadership in the House inexplicably denied the committee the space it had booked in the Rayburn House Office Building. Democrats then scrambled to convert it into a press event, to be held outside on the Capitol steps.
Reporters planning to cover the event noticed some unusual behind-the-scenes tumult, as the announced room space changed several times in twenty-four hours: it changed once on Monday to an alternate space in Rayburn, then again on Tuesday morning to the Capitol Visitor’s Center, followed by an announcement that it would be held outside.
Boehner’s office did not immediately return a request for comment from The Nation.
Democrats were outraged. “Today, Democrats will highlight the stories of some of the men and women Republicans are so insistent on abandoning on the steps of the Capitol because Republicans have kicked House Democrats out of a hearing room,” Drew Hammill, communications director for Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, told The Nation in a statement. “These American families will not be silenced or left behind.”
The hearing is scheduled for 2:30 pm on Tuesday.
UPDATE, 4:40 p.m.: In comments to Roll Call, Republicans disputed taking the room away, citing an alleged paperwork error by Democrats that made them “balk” at the request, and that the room remained available.
Democrats insist the room privileges were indeed revoked. An aide to Pelosi told The Nation that on Tuesday morning, shortly before 9 a.m., Republicans re-offered the Rayburn space but with no dais nor audio-video equipment. The aide said that at noon on Tuesday, after this story and several others were published chronicling the drama, the room was offered with full media access, but that it was too late to change the location.
The press event went ahead as scheduled outside the Capitol, and Democratic leaders lashed out at the GOP over the alleged chicanery over the meeting space. “[Republicans have] said ‘These people are not looking for work, so we’re not going to give them this extension.’ They are in denial,” said Pelosi. “In fact they don’t even want to hear the truth. That’s why they kicked us out of the Rayburn room and wouldn’t let these stories be told, in the people’s house, on Capitol Hill.”
House Democrats and long-term jobless Americans speak outside the U.S. Capitol on May 6, 2014. Photo by George Zornick.
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer said that “They cut us off. They tried to silence the voices of those who are in deep pain because of Republican failures, because of Republicans’ ignoring the pain of so many people in America.”
Meanwhile, several unemployed Americans spoke about their plight. Kevin McCarthy of Boonsboro, Maryland detailed how he was laid off one year ago, and that his federal benefits finally expired in February. “When I received the letter, I was shocked, because by that point I figured Congress would have passed an extension of the federal benefits. I had to call my wife, and I cried. I didn’t’ know what I was going to do. I was shocked.”
You can watch the entire event here, via C-SPAN.