In a piece of political theater as stage-managed as a Broadway play, House Democrats on Wednesday afternoon trooped en masse into the House chamber to sign a petition that would force a vote on an extension of federal unemployment insurance benefits.
At a quarter past one in the afternoon, a crowd of Democratic lawmakers led by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, approached television cameras outside the House chamber to announce their plan to use a “discharge petition,” which, if successful, would bypass Republican House leadership and allow a vote on the benefits extension.
After some high-minded words about the suffering of the long-term unemployed – Rep. Sander Levin of Michigan even wrenched off his own wedding band while reading about a woman forced to sell her wedding set after losing her unemployment insurance benefits –Democrats lawmakers followed freshman Rep. Brad Schneider (D-IL), who is the official sponsor of the petition, into the House chamber.
Of course, none of the Democrats who lined up outside the chamber can realistically expect the petition to succeed. To do so, it would require more than 20 House Republicans to break ranks with House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and sign the Democrats’ petition – a very heavy lift for the Democrats.
Speaking prior to entering the chamber, Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-CA) gave the Democrats’ game away when he told reporters that the discharge petition “will prove who really want to help the American people.”
Given how unlikely it is that a discharge petition will succeed, Becerra’s statement is particularly telling: what the party is trying to do here is not force a vote so much as begin piling pressure on House Republicans to move on the issue.
During times of high unemployment, the federal government typically supplements state-level unemployment insurance benefits, which typically expire after 26 weeks, by extending them. During the Great Recession, benefits were at one point extended to 99 weeks, though that was later reduced to 73. The most recent extension expired on December 28, and since then more than 2 million workers who would otherwise have qualified for extended benefits, have been cut off. Despite widespread agreement that the extension should be reinstated, efforts in Congress have so far failed.
Republicans in the Senate have filibustered attempts by Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) to bring a bill to the Senate floor for a vote, and now two competing bills are awaiting action in the Senate. The Republican controlled House has so far taken no action on an extension, with Boehner apparently willing to wait until the Senate passes a bill.
A spokesman for Boehner has said that the Speaker is “open to discussing an extension of emergency unemployment benefits as long as it is paid for and includes measures to actually help create new jobs.” However, Boehner has not issued a proposal of his own, and has indicated that both of the proposals currently in the Senate, including one authored by Republicans, would not be acceptable to him.
Not long after the petition was filed on Wednesday, 85 of the chamber’s 199 Democrats had signed on. An aide to Pelosi said Wednesday afternoon that the minority leader expects the vast majority of the 199-member Democratic caucus to sign the petition, the exceptions being a handful of lawmakers who do not sign discharge petitions of any type, because they disagree with them in principle.
A discharge petition is not time limited, the way a floor vote might be. It can remain open to new signatures as long as this session of Congress lasts.
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