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Unemployment Benefits Extension

GOP Faces Empathy Gap

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The dome of the US Capitol is seen January 4, 2013 on a cold day in Washington. High temperatures Monday will occur during the early morning hours as a cold front brings yet another shot of super cold air to the mid-Atlantic region. Temperatures on Tuesday morning will dip into the single digits. AFP PHOTO / Karen BLEIERKAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images KAREN BLEIER / AFP - Getty Images

After losing the 2012 presidential election, after that 47% comment, and after a majority of voters (according to the exit polls) said that Mitt Romney’s policies favored the rich, Republicans acknowledged that they needed to close the empathy gap with Democrats. “The Republican Party must be the champion of those who seek to climb the economic ladder of life,” the RNC declared in its post-election autopsy. But the GOP didn’t come close to meeting that goal in 2013. For the first time ever, House Republicans decided to split food stamps (which benefit the poor) from agriculture subsidies (which benefit well-off farmers) in the farm bill. In addition, many of the party’s governors and GOP state legislators opposed expanding Medicaid to provide health insurance to low-income Americans. And in the first few days of 2014, Senate Republicans could filibuster a measure this morning at 10:30 am ET -- co-sponsored by a colleague, Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV) -- that would extend unemployment benefits for three months. Per NBC’s Kasie Hunt, four Republicans (Heller, Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, and Kelly Ayotte) have signaled they will vote on the motion to proceed on the legislation, but that’s one vote shy of the 60 needed to clear the procedural hurdle.

And it’s still trying to fix it

President Obama is scheduled to deliver remarks on unemployment benefits after this vote -- at 11:40 am -- and don’t be surprised if he uses that as an opportunity to chastise the GOP (if the legislation is filibustered). He might re-use this line from the economic speech he delivered a month ago in DC. “If Republicans have concrete plans that will actually reduce inequality, build the middle class, provide more ladders of opportunity to the poor, let’s hear them.” But as the Washington Post reports, Republicans are trying to respond to Obama’s challenge. Tomorrow, marking the 50th anniversary of LBJ’s “War on Poverty,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) will give a speech on income mobility and the American Dream. (Rubio previewed his remarks in a video he released over the weekend.) Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), who was Romney’s running mate in 2012, is also planning to address poverty. And as NBC’s Mike O’Brien wrote last month, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) recently traveled to Detroit to propose “Economic Freedom Zones” that could turn around Motown and other troubled urban areas. Former George W. Bush aide Peter Wehner recently argued that the Republican Party had an obligation to close the empathy gap. “I want to underscore the fact that focusing attention on those living in the shadows of American society is the responsibility of a great political party; and how to create greater opportunity and social mobility for those stuck on the bottom rungs of society should be part of any conservative governing vision."

But will the action meet the rhetoric?

The question for the GOP, however, is whether this Rubio/Ryan/Paul activity is more than words, especially as Democrats press to extend unemployment benefits and raise the minimum wage. Because right now, the GOP has a perception problem here with American voters. Per last month’s NBC/WSJ poll -- which was brutal for Democrats after all the problems associated with HealthCare.Gov -- the GOP trailed the Democratic Party by a whopping 28 points (45%-17%) on which party does a better job “showing passion and concern for people.” And here’s one more political point here: As we wrote yesterday, the 2014 midterms could very well come down to whether the focus is on health care (which favors the GOP) or on income inequality (which favors the Democrats). Today, the main political focus is on income inequality. Here’s a release from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee: “Tom Cotton Has Nothing But Disdain For Unemployed Workers, Opposes Extending Unemployment Insurance for Arkansans Looking for Work.”