Politics

01.07.14

The Senate’s Last Compassionate Conservative Tries to Help the Jobless

Dean Heller is no big spender, yet he talked five fellow Republicans into breaking his own party’s filibuster of extended unemployment benefits.

Before the Senate voted 60 to 37 Tuesday to end a Republican filibuster on a bill to extend jobless benefits for the next three months for the long-term unemployed, just one Republican senator went out on his own to speak in favor of it, the bill’s lone Republican co-sponsor, Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada. Republicans Kelly Ayotte, Dan Coats, Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, and Rob Portman joined Heller to move the bill forward, along with all Senate Democrats. 

“Helping those in need should not be a partisan issue. Providing a limited social net is one of the responsibilities of the federal government,” Heller said. “Unfortunately, instead of planning ahead and figuring the best way to do that, we are now forced to decide whether or not to reinstate these benefits after they’ve expired.”

Heller’s push for the emergency aid makes sense, given Nevada’s 9.3% unemployment rate, the highest in the nation. But his willingness to champion the bill put the former stockbroker on the opposite side of nearly every Republican in Washington, including powerful conservative groups like the Club for Growth and Heritage Action, which announced Monday they would “key vote” against the measure. 

Heller said he heard stories of people choosing to pay for gas or heat or school supplies for their kids.

His unambiguous push for the aid bill also highlighted the competing visions within his own party of how, and even whether, to help people still struggling in the nation’s uneven economic recovery, even as Washington Democrats push to exploit Republican opposition to aid measures going into the 2014 elections.   

On unemployment benefits specifically, most GOP senators said Tuesday they would have supported the bill if the $6.5 billion cost had be paid for with cuts elsewhere in the federal budget.   

But Heller and Senate Democrats argued that Congress should extend the aid now and debate how to pay for it later.  The emergency program, which began under President George  W. Bush in 2008, expired in December, leaving 1.3 million long-term unemployed workers without the $300 per week benefit Congress extended in 2011. According to the Pew Research Center, 38% of unemployed workers have been looking for a job for more than 26 weeks

“Paying for these benefits would be the best approach," Heller said. "Congress could have taken the harder road to figure out a way to do that, but they didn’t." 

So why would a conservative like Heller, who opposed the Wall Street bailout, the auto bailout, the Affordable Care Act, and last month’s Murray-Ryan budget that re-opened the government, put himself on the opposite side of his party on an expensive social welfare measure? 

“My state is struggling,” Heller said Monday, describing a November visit with his daughter, Emmy, to a Reno shelter that serves Thanksgiving dinners to the needy.

“When my daughter and I arrived, the line was four blocks long outside that venue.  It’s such an obvious example of how so many Nevadans are unable to provide for their basic needs and this cannot be ignored,” he said. “I know that many economists point to a national unemployment rate that’s improving, but at home, we don’t feel it.”

Heller said he heard stories of people choosing to pay for gas or heat or school supplies for their kids.

“These are hardworking individuals who rely on these benefits,” Heller continued.  “They are trying to find a job. They want to provide for their children.  But for these benefits to simply vanish without giving families them time to plan or figure out alternatives to help them get by to me is just not right.”

Heller’s argument for the bill stood in stark contrast to Republican messages against it.  In its warning to senators to vote against it, Heritage Action distributed research that it said showed “so-called emergency unemployment benefits” would actually hurt the economy, by causing higher and longer unemployment.

As Heritage Action and Club for Growth pushed senators to oppose the measure, Democrats worked behind the scenes and in front of television cameras to use the unemployment vote as evidence of what they say is a Republican Party wholly unconcerned with the struggles of working-class Americans.

Sessions’ comments came as Democrats worked behind the scenes and in front of television cameras to use the unemployment vote as evidence of what they say is a Republican Party wholly unconcerned with the struggles of working-class Americans.

Before the vote, Harry Reid said he hoped “a few reasonable, empathetic Republicans will join my colleague from Nevada,” while Chuck Schumer bluntly predicted that the vote would help Democrats in the 2014 midterm elections. “In the past, this has been a bipartisan issue that’s had the support of mainstream Republicans like George Bush,” Schumer said.  “To not have it now would show how far over our colleagues are moving.”

But several individual Republicans are moving aggressively to blunt that message and keep Democrats from owning the  broader economic issue. Rand Paul, who argued recently that long-term unemployment benefits do a disservice to people without jobs by discouraging work, went to Detroit last month to discuss spreading economic opportunity to urban communities. On Wednesday, Marco Rubio, will give a speech about lifting Americans out of poverty and expanding the American dream, declaring “Big Government’s war on poverty a failure” and creating what he calls “a new a new opportunity society.” On Thursday, Rep. Paul Ryan will headline a program on conservative proposals to end poverty and improve the economy.

Rubio and Paul both voted against the unemployment extension.

Several Republicans, including Jeff Sessions, took issue with Democrats' characterization of a vote against the bill as evidence of Republicans' heartlessness.  The vote, Republicans said, showed they care about the country's long-term economic health, while Democrats just care about the next election.   

“It’s not right to just say that the only people who care about American workers and care about the unemployed are those of us who are willing to forget our budget limitations, forget our financial responsibilities and just borrow more and spend more and somehow this is going to fix the problem we are facing,” Sessions said. "It is creating the very disease that’s causing workers to be suffering today.”

Either way, Heller urged his colleagues to help unemployed Americans make ends meet while they continue to look for a job. "It's the right thing to do."