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GOP Rallies on Unemployment

With unemployment surging last month at its fastest pace in 20 years, House Democratic leaders thought they would have an easy time slamming through a broad extension of unemployment benefits with a veto-proof majority.

So confident, they initially put their bill on the suspension calendar last week, thinking few Republicans would vote against unemployment benefits less than five months before the election. They thought that not many would risk tying their fortunes to President Bush’s veto pen.

But House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) rallied their troops as they have repeatedly in the past year and a half to block an expansion of children’s health insurance, spending bills, stem-cell research and timelines for the Iraq War.

The bill failed on suspension because the Democrats were three votes shy of a two-thirds majority. On the second try the next day, the bill passed 274-137, still shy of the 290 votes needed to ensure a veto override if all Members are present.

“It’s stunning when you think about the suffering in their own districts,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in an interview.

She held out hope that Democrats could override the president. “I don’t view yesterday’s vote as an impossible override, and I hope the president would rethink his position. He signed a bill extending unemployment benefits in 2002.”

Nonetheless, the setback appeared to put a crimp in House Democrats’ plans to extract unemployment insurance from the battle over the $250 billion war supplemental. House leaders have planned to drop unemployment from the war bill — expected on the House floor Wednesday — to get the larger bill signed by Bush. But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) made it clear last week that he would put it back in and would not spend much time trying to force a stand-alone unemployment bill to the floor.

“This is about leverage on the supplemental,” a House Republican aide said. “The Speaker and Harry Reid are playing a little game back and forth of how much they can get passed.” The aide said that by showing that House Republicans could block a bill, they maximized their leverage on the supplemental, one of the last must-pass bills of the year.

The GOP and the Bush administration have resisted extending unemployment benefits for months, but House Republicans modified their position after the latest unemployment surge.

They say they support an extension of benefits only in states with high unemployment and only for people who had worked for at least 20 weeks before being laid off.

The Democratic plan is “an irresponsible use of taxpayers’ funds,” Boehner said. “Americans who work hard every day don’t want their dollars squandered.”

Two hours before the first vote on the bill, Blunt predicted that his members would have a veto-sustaining minority, and he was right.

The Democrats’ folly, he said, is “to assume that if they bring a bill to the floor with a good title, the American people will never figure out if it’s a good bill or not,” he said. “I think our Members can explain that.”

He said unemployment benefits “may discourage people from actively looking for work.”

But Pelosi rejected the idea of accepting a more limited Republican proposal.

“That’s under 10 states,” she said. “Tell that to the states that aren’t highly impacted but have scores of high-impact regions within those states,” she said.

Republican aides said their proposal would actually provide some extensions in 22 states.

Even some Republicans targeted by Democrats for defeat, such as Rep. Mark Kirk (Ill.), backed their party’s leadership and said they could easily sell the message back home.

“I want to make sure that when you get extended unemployment benefits, you’ve been working for more than two weeks,” he said.

Kirk said the issue just isn’t that big a deal in his district, where he said the unemployment rate is about 5.5 percent — the same as the national rate.

“I know that others think this is a big issue, but I’ve heard very little,” he said. “I have a very high-income district.”

But like the bruising battle over expanding children’s health insurance, the unemployment issue had scores of Republicans jumping ship. Delegations from hard-hit states such as Michigan voted with the Democrats, and some co-sponsored the Democratic bill and took to the floor to admonish fellow Republicans for opposing the $16 billion bill. Even Budget ranking member Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), normally one of the most fiscally conservative Members, jumped on board, citing the layoffs at a General Motors factory and other businesses in his district.

“Jobs are dropping fast in my neck of the woods,” he said. “I think it depends on where you are. … If you represent Orange County and you’ve got 2.9 percent unemployment, then it probably doesn’t affect you. But if you represent Wisconsin and you represent Harley-Davidson and GM plants, then yeah, it does matter.”

Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) drew parallels to other partisan spats from the past year and a half, including the State Children’s Health Insurance Program and subsidies for oil companies, and he said House Republicans have shown that Bush still maintains a “loyal cadre” willing to back him up.

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