After a long holiday break, Congress returns to Washington on Monday ready to tackle a heavy legislative agenda—and the first order of business is a vote on a bill to extend long-term unemployment benefits for three months. Though the outcome is still far from settled, Republicans appear ready to vote the bill down, despite widespread unemployment problems in their own states.
The bill has one Republican co-sponsor, Senator Dean Heller of Nevada, who represents a state with the second-highest percentage of residents who have been jobless for more than six months. If that’s the formula for getting GOP support, then there shouldn’t be any problem. Note the area of the country with the highest levels of long-term unemployment, which I have helpfully highlighted:
In eight Southern states—Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky—the long-term jobless rate is quite high compared to much of the rest of the country. Of the sixteen senators representing those states, fourteen are Republicans (with one Democrat in both North Carolina and Florida.)
That means not only higher numbers of constituents being hurt by the benefit lapse, but a bigger hit to the state economy—Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee estimate $400 million in economic activity was lost in the first week without benefits, and Harvard economist Lawrence Katz puts that number at $1 billion. That damage is naturally concentrated more heavily in states where more people are missing benefit checks.
So Democrats should have no trouble finding just four more Republicans to vote for a benefit extension, right?
Alas, many of those very senators are already on the record against an extension.
Many of those states are deep, deep red—so even though polls show substantial, bipartisan support for extending the emergency unemployment program, and though many local media outlets are aggressively covering the issue, the senators in question have little to fear.
There are certainly enough senators remaining who might deliver the needed “yes” votes—say, someone like Republican Mark Kirk in Illinois, which is a blue state with a high level of long-term unemployment.
And maybe that will work. But if it doesn’t, there are larger perils for the Republican party—Democrats are reportedly ready to once again embrace economic populism as a campaign message this year, and if Republicans block a meager benefit extension for those hardest hit by the recession, they play into Democratic hands.
That should worry all GOP senators, regardless of where they’re from. Voting against a benefit extension may not hurt Senator Jeff Sessions too badly in Alabama, but it may do real damage to his chances of being in the majority at this time next year.