WASHINGTON — Wednesday marked the tenth day that hundreds of thousands of jobless people couldn't get benefit checks because of congressional gridlock — an impasse rooted in politics, and perhaps one with political consequences in November.
Democrats say that the legislation — which also would fund temporary increases in Medicare payments to doctors — is a response to true emergencies. Republicans agree, but insist that the cost should be offset by cutting federal spending elsewhere.
Democrats think they have a terrific political issue for framing their opponents in the coming congressional elections. So do Republicans.
Meanwhile, polls show the public is growing more disgusted with lawmakers regardless of party. Only 20.7 percent of the public approves of Congress, while 73 percent disapproves of how lawmakers are doing their jobs, according to an average of polls taken by RealClearPolitics.com.
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The lawmakers spent much of their 16 day spring recess, which ended Monday, railing against each other. Meanwhile, money to fund part of the unemployment benefit program ran out on April 5. An estimated 425,000 people who should be getting benefit checks aren't. The National Employment Law Project, an advocacy group on jobless issues, estimates that another 212,500 people are affected each week that the benefits remain unfunded.
Republicans say that Democrats could have come back to Washington and resolved the issue easily, but instead they preferred to rail against the GOP.
Democrats say that Republicans are being unreasonable, insisting on what Democrats consider an ideological point while thousands of people desperately need assistance.
A big part of the problem, analysts say, is that politicians see their positions as emblematic of what their parties stand for.
"It's far too tempting a target for Democrats to avoid," said Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University.
Day after day, they deride the GOP as heartless.
"Think of it — 200,000 people being turned away. Not to extend this on an emergency basis . . . is unthinkable to me," said Senate Democratic Policy Committee Chairman Byron Dorgan, D-N.D.
At the same time, Baker said, "Republicans are probably right, that there's money somewhere in the vast reaches of the budget to offset this spending." No theme is stronger for Republicans these days than decrying Democrats as profligate spenders.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who's leading the GOP charge, offers specific places to find the needed money, such as using unspent federal funds in other accounts.
"It's not like we couldn't go and find $9.2 billion out of a nearly $4 trillion budget," he said, referring to the cost of extending the programs for one month. "It's not that it's impossible. We refuse to do the same things that families across this country do every day — and that's make a choice about priorities."
The blowup threatens to degrade the already caustic way the public views Congress. About six weeks ago, Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., held up an extension of jobless benefits. The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that 35 percent of the public had heard a lot about the Bunning controversy, while 38 percent had heard at least a little — huge numbers for a legislative dispute.
Incidents like this week's deadlock and the Bunning incident "are part of the mix," said Carroll Doherty, a Pew analyst. "People say a pox on both your houses."
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