Empathy tips for the GOP

John Boehner meets with reporters on Capitol Hill, Jan. 8, 2014.
John Boehner meets with reporters on Capitol Hill, Jan. 8, 2014.

The U.S. Senate on Tuesday narrowly cleared the first procedural hurdle to temporarily extend federal benefits to the long-term unemployed. And Republicans are busy strategizing the best way to convince America that they are the ones who are compassionate, and that somehow the Obama administration is trying to make unemployment in the country “easier to tolerate.”

A memo sent by House Republican leaders to their caucus, obtained by NBC News, lays out talking points lawmakers should use while discussing the debate over whether unemployment insurance benefits should be extended.

The coaching tips remind House Republicans -- who are widely expected to oppose the extension of jobless benefits -- to emphasize that unemployment is a “personal crisis for them and their family,” and to focus instead on the “dozens of House-passed jobs bills” that have never been considered by the Senate. Another suggested message: Liken the benefits to a handout.

“Washington has lost its priorities if it’s more focused on making unemployment easier to tolerate than it is getting people back to work and restoring independence all together,” the memo says.

That’s exactly the message GOPers delivered at a news conference on Wednesday.

“The American people are still asking the question: Where are the jobs?” House Speaker John Boehner said. “We’ve passed dozens of bills here in the House that continue to await action in the Senate that would help improve our economy.” Boehner said the House would only consider extending emergency unemployment benefits if “It was paid for and if there were provisions that we could agree to that would get our economy moving again.”

Rep. Chris Stewart of Utah said Dems are trying to create the impression that Republicans like him are “cold-hearted” toward American workers. “The reality," Stewart claimed, "is this president is failing American workers.”

In the Senate, the bill to extend the benefits for three months surprisingly advanced by a 60-37 vote after six Republicans joined the Democratic majority. Democrats needed at least 60 votes to push the legislation past the threat of a GOP filibuster and begin debate.

Long-term jobless insurance expired for 1.3 million Americans on Dec. 28. Senate Dems argued that a failure to pass an extension would hurt the economy and devastate Americans who would be left hanging. Republicans, meanwhile, argued that the renewal, set to cost about $6 billion, should be offset by cuts in other parts of the budget.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid urged GOPers to agree to the extension without demanding spending reductions. He pointed out that such benefits were extended many times under President George W. Bush without being offset in the budget.

“I am opposed to offsetting the cost of emergency unemployment benefits,” he said on the Senate floor, adding that he’s willing to discuss “reasonable ways” to pay for the benefits, but that lawmakers should not in the meantime  “punish 1.3 million Americans struggling to find work.” 

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi echoed Reid’s sentiments at a press conference with fellow Democrats, saying the party is open to hearing the GOP’s recommendations, but that the temporary extensions must first be passed.  House Republicans, she said, are “prepared to leave our workers out in the cold.”

At the same presser, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka skewered the Republican talking points, calling them “phony” and an effort to put a “warm edge on their cold politics…There’s nothing compassionate about denying people unemployment benefits.” 

The final outcome of the bill is in doubt, but things don't look good. The legislation must first pass the Senate, and faces an even bigger obstacle in the Republican-controlled House. Meanwhile, two GOP senators who voted to advance the three month extension—Sens. Rob Portman of Ohio and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire – said they won’t vote to end debate on the legislation unless there are offsets to cover the $6 billion cost. That means unless there are changes, the bill would certainly fail in the Senate.

"I will not vote to end debate without offsets," said Ayotte. Portman agreed and suggested the Dems were hoping the GOP would kill the bill for political reasons. The Democrats, he said, hoped "from a political point of view that they could you know, say that Republicans are obstructing. I think we took them by surprise."

President Obama laid out a moral argument to pass the bill and to help poor and struggling Americans on Tuesday.

“…These are your neighbors, your friends, your family members, it could at some point be any of us. That’s why we set up a system of unemployment insurance. The notion was everybody is making a contribution because you don’t know when the business cycle or an economic crisis might make any of us vulnerable,” he said, surrounded by several Americans who lost their benefits on Dec. 28 after Congress failed to act before leaving for the holidays.

Obama added: “…I meet a lot of people, and I can’t name a time when I met an American who would rather have an unemployment check than the pride of having a job. The long term unemployed are not lazy or lacking in motivation. They are coping with the aftermath of the worst economic crisis in generations.”