Eight hundred thousand American families began to lose their unemployment benefits Wednesday morning, after Republican senators blocked an emergency move to continue providing aid to jobless Americans.
Even supposedly moderate Republicans, such as Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown, who had been a critical swing vote in favor of extending benefits, refused to go along this time. More worried about procedure than the fact that the United States has the highest long-term unemployment rate since numbers began to be tracked in the 1940s, Brown chirped: "It’s not the way to do business in the United States Senate, and if it is it needs to change."”
The problem is that, as Brown and other Republicans in the Senate prattle on about how to "do business," millions of Americans are being left with no option at a time when the economy remains stalled. Indeed, cutting the benefits actually undermines economic renewal, as no federal spending circulates more quickly and fully into the economy than that allocated for jobless benefits.
Congressman Jim McDermott, the Washington Democrat who chairs the House Ways and Means Subcommittee that deals with income security, says, "The Republicans do not care."
"There’s nothing on the table except ‘Take care of the rich.’ That’s what their first priority is. It’s their second priority. It’s their third priority. And it’s their fourth priority. They do not care about the unemployed in this country."
McDermott, one of the savviest and most serious senior members of the House, is getting to the truth of what is happening in Washington this week.
The debate has nothing to do with the deficit concerns that are expressed by Brown and some of his allies.
The Republicans are bargaining on behalf of billionaires.
They won’t extend unemployment benefits (on average: $290 a week)—for the 800,000 who just lost them, and for the 2 million households that will lose them between Christmas and New Year’s Day—unless Congressional Democrats agree to extend tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans.
The question now is whether the Obama administration will engage in that negotiation.
As the unemployment benefits were running out, President Obama was meeting with Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, and suggesting that it was possible to work with the GOP is a "productive" manner. And Obama was dispatching Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner—"the guy that caused (the problem) among other people on Wall Street," says McDermott—to cut a deal.
"He keeps making the same diagnostic error. He thinks that you can shame the Republicans," the congressman says. "They have no ability to be shamed by children without food, or people being thrown out of their homes or all the problems that come with unemployment. And so it’s wasting your time doing that."
McDermott’s counsel: Obama should stop trying to negotiate with Senate Republicans, climb into the bully pulpit and tell America that the real needs of working Americans—and out-of-work Americans—must be a higher priority than the demands of billionaires for a redistribution of the wealth upward.