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Economic inequality, unemployment top Democrats’ agenda as Congress returns

A line of applicants snaked around the building at recent job fair hosted by Tanger Outlets in Fort Washington, MD. Photo by Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty Images

President Barack Obama and his Democratic allies in Congress have signalled that they intend to make income inequality a defining issue of 2014, and they are not wasting any time in beginning to make their case.

The first issue on the agenda Monday when the Senate returns is an extension of unemployment insurance benefits, which expired in late December.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., called on GOP lawmakers to join with his members to help clear the 60-vote threshold required to move forward with the measure. The Morning Line

“It would seem to me that five Republicans in the Senate should agree with the Republicans around the country,” Reid said Sunday during an interview with CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “Republicans around America want us to do something to extend these benefits. Why? Because it’s good for the economy, it’s good for the country.”

The legislation, sponsored by Sens. Jack Reed, D-R.I., and Dean Heller, R-Nev., would extend benefits for three months for some 1.3 million long-term unemployed Americans. The president endorsed the proposal in his weekly address on Saturday, and also sought to ramp up the pressure on Republican lawmakers.

“We don’t abandon our fellow Americans when times get tough – we keep the faith with them until they start that new job,” Mr. Obama said.

The president also plans to hold an event Tuesday at the White House where he will be joined by people who have lost their unemployment benefits.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has said he would be open to extending unemployment benefits, so long as the cost is offset with spending cuts elsewhere in the budget.

Other Republicans, such as Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, said GOP lawmakers should also push for additional provisions that would spur job creation.

“What I have always said is that it needs to be paid for, but we also need to do something for long-term unemployed people and that is we need to create something new that would create jobs,” Paul said during an appearance Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.” “So what I’d like to do when we get back is one, if we extend it we pay for it, but two, we add something to it that would create jobs.”

Democrats, including New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, are warning Republicans that if they block an extension of unemployment benefits, it could come back to haunt them in this year’s midterm elections.

“This year, dealing with declining middle class incomes and not enough job growth will be the number one issue. And if, on the first day of the new session, the Republican Party says they won’t even support an unemployment benefit extension … they’re going to show themselves so far out of the mainstream, it’s going to hurt them in the election,” Schumer said Sunday on ABC.

The Washington Post published a set of maps showing how many people, state-by-state, and even county-by-county, are affected by the loss of long-term unemployment benefits.

For Democrats, extending unemployment benefits is just one piece of the income inequality strategy, with some in the party also calling for an increase in the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour. While the president has said he backs the initiative, many Republicans are opposed, contending it would result in fewer jobs.

In fact, Jonathan Weisman of the New York Times writes that Republicans on Capitol Hill have scaled back their agenda for 2014, to avoid any trouble ahead of the midterm elections.

Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, the House majority leader, is quietly playing down expectations for any major legislative achievements in the final year of the 113th Congress, which passed fewer laws in its first year — 65 — than any single session on record. The calendar, drawn up to maximize campaign time ahead of midterm elections in November, is bare bones, with the House in session just 97 days before Election Day, the last on Oct. 2, and 112 days in all.

In 2013, the House was in session 118 days before November and 135 in all.

The Washington Post’s Philip Rucker and Scott Wilson, meanwhile, take a look at the president’s game plan as 2014 gets underway, and note that turning around public opinion on the health care law will be a main focus:

With millions of Americans receiving health-care coverage under the Affordable Care Act, Obama will try to shift the public’s attention from the disastrous rollout of the HealthCare.gov Web site to the real-life benefits of the law. Obama plans to do some outside-the-Beltway travel in the weeks ahead to showcase successes, according to administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the president’s plans.

If the president is unable to shed the problems with the health care law, then the rest of his agenda, including the push to address income inequality, will struggle to gain traction.

Scott Winship of the Manhattan Institute and former Labor Secretary Robert Reich had examined the big picture of the long-term unemployment issue in a segment Dec. 27 with anchor Hari Sreenivasan:


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