Almost a month has passed since 1.3 million Americans lost their unemployment benefits. The Senate’s attempt to extend benefits fell apart, while any hope for a vote in the House is even more precarious. Last week, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-KY) office averted responsibility to help the jobless when labor activists asked for action.
“Did the American dream. Got [my daughter] in college,” one activist named Wessita McKinley told the spokesman. “And I’m sitting here struggling. I’m now ready to take a street sweeper job if they would offer it to me. So I’m asking you the million dollar question. What am I supposed to do right now to keep a roof over my head, food in my stomach, clothes on my back, car insurance paid?”
McConnell’s spokesman Don Stewart’s response, highlighted by MSNBC’s Steve Benen, was, “I can only tell you what we can do here in the Senate. I have no control over your life.”
But McConnell and fellow Republicans have proved that they are controlling the impasse on the Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC) program. First, they filibustered the extension while demanding additional budget cuts to pay for the program. When Democrats conceded and extended specific sequestration cuts in exchange for either a three-month or year-long extension, McConnell wanted to offer additional amendments, like delaying the individual mandate provision of Obamacare. But even after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid allowed a limit of five Republican amendments with a 60-vote threshold the GOP demanded more.
McConnell, meanwhile, thinks the focus on helping unemployed workers is misplaced. “I have to admit, I’m a little surprised at the fervor with which the majority is dedicated to reviving the expired emergency unemployment benefits after they ignored the issue [of the Affordable Care Act] all of last year,” he said earlier in January.
Stewart certainly did not give the federal unemployment program, and by extension the Senate’s role in keeping it afloat, enough credit in impacting people’s lives. Since the recession, these benefits have kicked in for Americans who have generally been out of work longer than six months. By that point, most state unemployment benefits expire, so more than 1 million Americans (and their 2.3 million children) have lost their only income lifeline of about $1,166 per month. Another 200,000 Americans stand to lose their jobs as expired benefits drives consumer spending even lower.