AOC and other progressives open the door to fighting Biden on renewing federal unemployment benefits

Alexandria Ocasio Cortez
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., speaks, Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020, outside the Democratic National Committee (DNC) Headquarters in Washington. AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin
  • Progressive lawmakers like AOC are deciding whether to push to renew federal unemployment benefits.
  • Any effort faces long odds given resistance from the White House, New York’s Rep. told Insider.
  • Pelosi is focused on crafting a bill that can pass the Senate, potentially dooming an extension.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Democrats are beginning to assemble a massive $US3.5 ($AU5) trillion social spending plan they will muscle through without any Republican votes in the next few months.

But largely left out of the discussions are an extension of pandemic unemployment benefits. It seems highly unlikely that lawmakers in either the House or Senate will pursue a renewal once they expire on Sept. 6, imperiling incomes for at least 7.5 million people. Rep. John Yarmuth of Kentucky, the House Budget Committee Chair, told Insider on Monday an extension wasn’t part of the negotiations.

There’s one prominent voice who speaks up on contentious issues like this: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, and she told Insider it’s a fight being discussed among progressives like herself.

The 96-member Congressional Progressive Caucus are in early discussions on whether to push for a renewal. It may be an opening for them to leverage their influence and obtain extra federal aid for struggling Americans. Progressives led by Rep. Cori Bush successfully pressured the Biden administration to unilaterally extend an eviction moratorium earlier this month.

But such an effort could also inject more chaos into a legislative process that Democratic leaders want to choreograph with as little error as possible because of their narrow majorities. House Democrats only wield a three-seat majority while the Senate is 50-50.

There’s already been missteps that threatened to jeopardize swaths of President Joe Biden’s domestic agenda. A group of 10 House moderates rebelled over Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s insistence to pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill only after the Senate cleared a partisan social spending plan. They secured a pledge from Pelosi on Tuesday to pass the infrastructure bill in a month instead, regardless of whether the party-line plan was approved.

Some progressives are already raising alarm over the end of pandemic unemployment benefits. Ocasio-Cortez said it’s a “major concern” for her.

“What we have right now is that the Biden administration has indicated they have almost no willingness to extend the pandemic unemployment assistance program,” she told Insider. “We have a Senate that doesn’t want to do it, a White House that doesn’t want to do it – it’s going to take a very committed House.”

She conceded any successful effort would come well after Labor Day. Progressives are prioritizing the Democrat-only spending plan, and hammering out the legislative details could take many weeks. Ocasio-Cortez said progressives are “looking into it.”

Economists say that rising COVID-19 cases from the Delta variant is a factor preventing people from re-entering the workforce and accepting low-paying jobs that leave them at risk of infection. Mounting research also indicates generous federal aid hasn’t been the biggest factor contributing to the labor shortage.

Other progressives want to extend aid

Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, the chief vote-counter in the caucus, told Insider that they still haven’t tallied the amount of support in their ranks for a benefit extension. “It is a conversation that we’re engaged in – we haven’t whipped on that as the progressive caucus yet,” she said. “So we will gauge with our caucus to see what we are willing to do in negotiating for that.”

Omar said she believed it was “necessary” to extend the benefits.

“I think it’s important,” Omar told Insider. “I also hear the other side that there’s employment available but the reality is that many of the jobs available are not paying a minimum wage and that brings us back to that conversation of trying to get $US15 ($AU21) minimum wage instituted in this country.”

Omar and Ocasio-Cortez aren’t alone in backing an extension. A spokesperson for Bush told Insider she does as well.

Still, any drive to renew benefits would all but certainly crash into opposition in the Senate, due to resistance from moderate Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Angus King of Maine. All 50 Democratic senators must stick together for the party-line bill to pass, setting up no room for error.

“There’s no Republican support for extensions and some members of our caucus are skeptical,” a Senate Democratic aide granted anonymity to speak candidly told Insider. “Despite studies showing no real job growth in Republican states that cut benefits off early, there are still members sympathetic to the business community’s arguments.”

House Democratic leaders appear to be renewing their focus on crafting a reconciliation bill that will garner unanimous support from their party in the Senate. If that’s the case, an unemployment benefit extension may be out of the picture already.

“There’s no use in us doing a bill that is not going to pass the Senate,” Pelosi said on Wednesday.