By opposing an extension of unemployment benefits, Republicans jockey to re-establish themselves as the party of fiscal sanity.

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July 21 2010 6:41 PM

Friends Without Benefits

Why Republicans oppose an extension of unemployment insurance.

Eric Cantor. Click image to expand.
Eric Cantor

Senate Democrats finally broke a Republican filibuster Wednesday on a $34 billion package that would allow the unemployed to collect benefits for up to 99 weeks. The bill passed in a final vote—but only after Republicans made Democrats wait an extra 30 hours after cloture, a formality that parties usually waive.

Why are Republicans so determined to stop the benefits—even for 30 hours?

It's not about the polls. Extending unemployment benefits is a popular move. A recent poll conducted by CBS News found that 52 percent of respondents favored extending benefits even if it meant enlarging the federal deficit, with 39 percent opposed. * The numbers were even more skewed in a poll by ABC News that provided the arguments for and against the measure, with 62 percent for and 36 percent against.

It's not about November—at least, not entirely. (More on that later.) Republicans say they oppose the extension because it adds to the deficit. But the deficit isn't anywhere near Americans' top priority. In a recent Gallup poll, the national debt ranked sixth among the most important problems facing the country, behind the oil spill and health care. Unemployment and jobs ranked second. Extending unemployment benefits wouldn't create jobs directly, but it would put money into the hands of people who would spend it, stimulating the economy.

It's not about principle, either. Congress has extended unemployment benefits five times since the beginning of 2008, including under President Bush. During past recessions—2003, 1992, 1983—Congress extended benefits, albeit not nearly as long as the new 99-week cap. The difference this time, Republicans say, is that the extension isn't paid for. (In reality, it's a mixed bag: Some past extensions have been paid for; some haven't.) "I don't know anybody who's not in favor of extending unemployment," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday. He just wants it to be paid for—for example, by dipping into unspent stimulus funds. Democrats point out, however, that Republicans have not applied this pay-as-you-go standard to their own policies, particularly the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003, which added to the debt by a lot more than $34 billion. * Some Republicans also argue that extending unemployment benefits will make people less likely to look for jobs. But when there are five job seekers for every available job, that's a hard argument to support.

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What it's probably about, unsurprisingly, is political branding: The GOP wants to reassert itself as the party of fiscal responsibility. That image has taken a blow in the last decade. The Bush tax cuts only added to the deficit, as did the Medicare prescription drug benefit and the war in Iraq. Worse, Obama appears to be claiming the deficit-hawk mantle as his own. Health care reform, Democrats are only too eager to point out, will cut the deficit by $138 billion over the first decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Meanwhile, Obama has set up a bipartisan debt commission to tackle the painful spending choices that await us. Sure, the solution will be dubbed "bipartisan." But Democrats will make sure no one forgets that their guy started it.

Republicans therefore need a rock on which to plant their flag—and unemployment benefits appears to be it. Never mind that $34 billion is a pittance compared with the size of the deficit ($1.5 trillion) or the debt ($13 trillion). Or that economists largely agree that stimulating our way out of the recession is more important—for now—than cutting the deficit. Opposing the benefits package lets Republicans say they tried to rein in yet another piece of outrageous Democratic spending.

And that, per the caveat above, does help in November. Voters may favor extending benefits, but they're also ticked off about the bad economy, and most think Obama's stimulus package hurt. Never mind that the desire to extend benefits and rein in spending contradict each other—cognitive dissonance among voters is nothing new. Republicans are betting that frustration with Obama wins out. And given that voters usually blame the incumbent for an ailing economy, they're probably right.

But they're also playing the long game. Whoever controls the House after November, cutting the deficit will necessarily occupy Congress for a generation. Positioning yourself as the party of fiscal responsibility makes sense in the long run—even if it means a few million Americans remain jobless in the short run. Like Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.

Clarifications, July 22, 2010: This article originally used the phrases "cutting into the federal deficit" and "ate into the debt" to mean expenditures that enlarged the deficit and debt. (Return to the first and second revised sentences.)

Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.

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