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Obama, Dems Push For Extending Unemployment Benefits, Fixing Income Inequality

obama hawaiiPresident Obama’s push to get congressional Republicans to extend unemployment benefits for 1.3 million Americans is part of a Democratic strategy to solidify middle-class support by focusing on the negative effects of America’s vast income inequality, according to Democratic lawmakers.

The president is holding an event today that includes people who saw their jobless insurance lapse at the turn of the year. He also plans to talk about income inequality during his State on the Union address later in the month, following up on a much-discussed speech he gave late last year.

“The president will talk about the toll that allowing these benefits to expire has had on 1.3 million Americans, and he’ll warn of the negative consequences for the broader economy if Congress fails to act quickly on this urgent priority,” the White House says.

A bill to extend benefits faces an uncertain future in Congress, as Republicans in the House and Senate repeat the same themes they have made in the past in the face of government spending: any spending increase should be offset by cuts in other parts of the budget.

“Spending $6.5 billion in three months without trying to find ways to pay for it, or improve the underlying policy, is irresponsible and takes us in the wrong direction,” said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn.

With issues like extending unemployment benefits and raising the minimum wage, congressional historian Julian Zelizer at Princeton University told the Christian Science Monitor that Democrats are “outlining an agenda” not only for this year, but also for future years.

“A lot of Democrats feel the last two years have been consumed with health care … and the deficit,” he said. “Until you shift the debate, you’re not going to be able to get in a position where you can push for legislation like the [higher] minimum wage. And this is the right time because the Republicans are in a moment of division” over whether to obstruct or to compromise.

Polls indicate there might be public support for both issues. Polls also reveal the public is uneasy about the widening income inequality. But Democrats still must be careful, according to John Pitney Jr., a congressional expert at Claremont McKenna College in California.

 “Democrats must be careful in how they frame the issue” of inequality, he said. “If voters think that the idea is to redistribute wealth from the middle class to the poor, Democrats will lose badly.”

Conservative commentators like Steve Hayes of Fox News says Republicans are being too “wimpy” in opposing Democrats on issues like unemployment benefits.

“They make a very pragmatic, practical argument about deficit neutrality,” Hayes said. “I think that’s a fine argument, as far as it goes. But I think Republicans are being a little too wimpy on this. I think it’s time to make a moral argument against extended unemployment insurance forever.”

Hayes said that the benefits, once granted sporadically for dire circumstances, could actually lead to greater unemployment levels and are in danger of effectively becoming an entitlement program.

“We’ve been hearing that it’ll be cut off now for the better part of five years,” Hayes said.  “There used to be widespread, bipartisan agreement in Washington that unemployment insurance was sort of the last place to go, the last place that somebody who was down on their luck could turn. Now, it’s increasingly becoming a way of life.”

“What’s surprising to me,” Hayes added, “is that Republicans aren’t making a moral case about how often unemployment insurance that goes on forever leads to more unemployment.”

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