TERRE HAUTE —
New sprouts of rational thinking continue to emerge, little by little, in Congress. Their stability is fragile. The approaching 2014 midterm elections will undoubtedly intensify the divisions between Republicans and Democrats as they try to impress their parties’ hard core loyalists and win their votes in the spring primaries. Still, a growing number of senators and representatives on Capitol Hill are rejecting the “no-compromise” culture of governing. The threat of tea party reprisals manipulates members’ daily decisions less often.
A gesture Tuesday by Sen. Dan Coats, an Indiana Republican, showed a measure of independence. It surprised many. It deserves notice.
Coats was one of just six GOP senators whose votes kept alive a bill to extend unemployment benefits to 1.3 million Americans, including 19,200 Hoosiers. The vote was not final, but merely procedural. The formal decision on extending long-term jobless benefits, which Congress allowed to expire in December, is yet to come. Tuesday’s vote — which passed 60-37, thanks to the six Republicans joining the Democrats — set up a structure for debating the benefits’ extension. In a statement to The Washington Post, Coats emphasized he would oppose final passage of the bill if its cost was not offset by spending cuts elsewhere. Nonetheless, with the conservative political activist group Heritage Action vowing Tuesday’s vote would affect its ratings of senators, Coats cast a “yes” anyway.
Unemployment deeply affects the lives of Hoosiers, and especially Wabash Valley residents. The Terre Haute metro area, which includes surrounding counties, has the second-highest unemployment rate in Indiana at 8.8 percent of the labor force in the most recent report. Only Michigan City stands higher at 8.9 percent. Indiana’s jobless rate of 7.3 percent continues to exceed the national rate, now at 7 percent. Those statistics represent real people, most of whom — through no fault of their own — need the unemployment benefits, which average $242 a week in Indiana. If Congress fails to extend them, the number of Hoosiers bumped off the benefits list could reach 69,300 by the end of this year, according to U.S. Department of Labor calculations cited in the Louisville Courier-Journal.
This issue could exemplify the political parties’ approach to 2014 congressional elections. As its conservative factions seek to keep opposition to President Obama’s Affordable Care Act stoked as their campaign centerpiece, Republicans — and Democrats — must also connect with the millions of voters who have experienced hardships through the recession and its agonizingly slow recovery. The lack of solid-income jobs and the loss of many long-term employers in many cities has touched more American, Hoosier and Hautean lives than “Obamacare,” and that reality will emerge in the campaign.
The gap between the wealthy and middle-to-low-income people grew during and after the recession. So did scrutiny of people on the lower end of that scale, particularly when they receive an unemployment check to put food on the table.
Republicans face pressure from conservative political action groups to thwart the $6.4-billion jobless benefits bill as unaffordable, insisting those payments are not a “free lunch,” as Heritage Action put it. Despite his fiscal concerns and the political groups’ objections, Coats acted Tuesday to give the bill a chance to be debated and voted upon. By doing so, Coats displayed yet another concern — for the struggling Hoosiers he represents.