The struggle in Washington over whether to renew expired jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed is as much about providing aid to 1.3 million out-of-work Americans as it is about drawing the first political bright line of an election year that has the economy as one of its central themes.
Tuesday's unexpected vote in the Senate removed one obstacle to a three-month extension of aid, attracting six Republicans and illustrating the real-life and political pressures on some Republican lawmakers, including those from states with unemployment above the national average.
Still, the legislation's outcome was uncertain as Democrats, backed by the White House, and Republicans remained sharply divided over whether the cost of the $6.4 billion program extension should be added to the deficit or paid for with spending cuts. Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and White House officials indicated they would be receptive to cuts to offset a yearlong renewal of the program, only if Republicans would first agree to restore the benefits for three months without conditions.
The debate fits neatly into a White House strategy to focus much of this year on long-standing economic disparities and drawing Republicans into a midterm elections fight that Democrats believe they win with the public. Income inequality and the lack of upward mobility will be a central theme of Obama's State of the Union address later this month — a focus White House officials call Obama's "driving motivation."
It could be a tricky emphasis. Even as Obama calls attention to what he perceives as structural economic flaws that have created a chasm between haves and have-nots, he is also trying to emphasize the economy's recovery from the Great Recession. At the same time, unemployment under his watch remains high at 7 percent and the total number of long-term unemployed is 4.1 million, a number underscored by his call for a renewal of the emergency jobless benefits.
Speaking at the White House on Tuesday, Obama said the nation's economy is getting stronger, but he conceded that "the recovery in a big country like the United States is going to be somewhat uneven."
What's more, the White House was observing the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty with an economic report Wednesday that hails government anti-poverty programs but also blames the lack of progress in reducing poverty since the 1980s on rising inequality.
Eager to sustain attention on the economy, Democrats are expected to follow the debate over jobless benefits with a proposal to increase the minimum wage. The strategy matches a script laid out by Obama's pollster in November that stressed that the economy remained an overriding voter priority. At the time, the troubled rollout of Obama's health care law was dominating the news, but pollster Joel Benenson argued that it was "imperative that we return to the core issues that animate voters' lives: a desire for financial security." The White House distributed the memo to congressional Democrats.
On Tuesday, Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell attacked Obama and the Democrats and argued that they were complaining about the hardships facing jobless workers "as if somehow there's no responsibility for that with either the majority in the Senate or the administration."
While some conservatives have argued that jobless benefits stifle the motivation of unemployed people to look for work, most Republicans cast their objections as an issue of fiscal responsibility, making a case that the benefits should be paid for and accusing Obama of not being responsive to their jobs proposals.
Reid argued that after a series of belt-tightening measures, there are few places to trim the budget. "If they come with something that's serious, I'll talk to them," he said. "But right now, everyone should understand, the low-hanging fruit is gone."