A hearing on the impact of long-term unemployment scheduled for this afternoon has been moved outdoors, igniting a political scuffle on Capitol Hill. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s staff said they were informed this morning that the Democrats’ Steering and Policy Committee would not be able to use meeting space in the Capitol – a charge that Republicans firmly deny.
The hearing was explicitly designed to increase pressure on House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and other House Republicans to renew an extension of federal unemployment insurance benefits. So it was not terribly surprising that Republicans, who control the House, might not be eager to supply meeting space. But Democrats, in announcing that the hearing would be replaced by an outdoor press conference on the Capitol steps, expressed outrage nonetheless.
“Today, Democrats will highlight the stories of some of the men and women [who] Republicans are so insistent on abandoning on the steps of the Capitol because Republicans have kicked House Democrats out of a hearing room,” said Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill. “These American families will not be silenced or left behind. Democrats are continuing to fight to renew emergency unemployment for the millions Americans who depend on it to pay their bills and feed their families as they search for work.”
House Republicans, however, told a markedly different version of the story.
Alexandra Sollberger, spokesperson for the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, which controls the room where the hearing was to be held, called the Democrats’ move “partisan political shenanigans at its best.”
Democrats, she said in an email, “requested the use of a committee hearing room space that they billed as a member meeting that would not include press.” She said that it was “at the last minute” that Democrats changed the nature of the event, such that it “no longer complies with the terms to which they originally agreed.”
Sollberger included a copy of the Democrats’ request that specifically refers to the event as a “members meeting” and indicates that the media will not be present. Speaker Pelosi’s office last week sent out a “media advisory” describing the event and including contact information for television crews.
Sollberger insisted the Democrats’ request for space would be honored if they signed a request that accurately describes the event.
“At no time did we deny their request to hold an event,” Sollberger wrote. “In fact, we have communicated to Democrat staff that we are more than willing to accommodate the event they now wish to hold – all they have to do is ask.”The hearing, scheduled for 2:30 this afternoon, was going to feature seven jobless workers who lost their unemployment insurance benefits when Congress allowed an extension of the Emergency Unemployment Compensation program to lapse in December. The program supplements state-level benefits, which typically end after about six months.
The Senate passed a bipartisan extension of the program, but efforts to renew the unemployment insurance have hit a wall in the House. Speaker Boehner has said he would consider a renewal, but has refused to take up the Senate bill, claiming it doesn’t do enough to create jobs. He has neither offered a proposal himself, nor allowed an existing proposal put forward by House Republicans to come to a vote.
The fact that the meeting has been moved outside was blasted by the National Employment Law Project, which had coordinated the witnesses.
“Tax-paying and voting citizens were invited to D.C. today to share their struggles with long-term unemployment with members of Congress and when they arrived, they quite literally found out that the doors to Congress were shut for them,” said Judy Conti, NELP’s federal advocacy coordinator. “The House Leadership is seemingly so desperate to avoid its responsibility to consider the Senate-passed bill that it won’t even allow constituents to testify in the House office buildings. It’s a sad state of affairs when citizens can’t even be welcomed into the congressional buildings that their taxes pay for.”
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