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House Dems gather for 'Witness Wednesdays' to push for unemployment extension

For seven Wednesdays this summer, Democrats and activists will gather at the Capitol to read the stories of those affected by Congress' inability to pass an extension of emergency unemployment compensation benefits.

By Gabrielle Levy
House Dems gather for 'Witness Wednesdays' to push for unemployment extension
Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., speaks at "Witness Wednesday," a seven-week event at the Capitol where members of Congress will read the stories of the long-term unemployed in an effort to pressure House Republicans to pass an extension on unemployment insurance. (Also pictured: Rep. Steve Horsford of Nevada, Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, Dan Kildee of Michigan, and Sander Levin of Michigan, with activists.)

WASHINGTON, June 11 (UPI) -- House Democrats have joined a coalition of advocacy groups for a series of events to push Republican leadership to pass an extension of emergency unemployment insurance.

Congressmen gathered at the Capitol Wednesday for the first of a series of "Witness Wednesdays" events, where they read personal accounts of people from their districts who have lost unemployment benefits.

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The initiative, orchestrated by the Center for Effective Government, the National Employment Law Project, the Coalition on Human Needs and the National Women's Law Center, will repeat the event each week through the end of July, except the week of July 4th.

"Witness Wednesday is another effort to tell the stories of what it means for hardworking people who have done everything right, who have worked hard, played by the rules and have hit a tough time," said Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., whose state has one of the highest rates of long-term unemployed.

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Cicilline, who called the House Republican leadership's refusal to bring the issue to a vote "un-American," said the initiative is meant to remind their colleagues that the loss of unemployment benefits is hurting real people.

"It's clear by their inaction that unemployed people have become invisible to the House Republican leadership," he said.

Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich., who introduced a version of a bipartisan bill that passed in April in the Senate, called the effort a "frustrating," "one-sided conversation."

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"It's a shame that there's no indication from Republicans that they even see this as an issue worth bringing up," he said.

The Senate deal, forged by Rhode Island Democrat Jack Reed and Nevada Republican Dean Heller, would have re-funded the emergency unemployment benefits for those who had been out of work for six months or more, going back to December 28, when the previous funding expired. Reed and Heller's deal would have funded unemployment compensation through May 28.

Although with the passage of that date, the deal was considered essentially dead, Kildee said its still possible for the House to pass a bill with that language.

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"Obviously that wouldn't solve the problem going forward, but it would restore some degree of stability for those families," he said.

Kildee said Democrats "would be happy" to discuss alternatives for funding the extension, but has gotten nowhere with trying to talk to House Republicans. In the Senate, he said he's discussed the extension's future with Sen. Reed.

But with the unexpected defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in his primary Tuesday night, no one seems to be quite sure whether business as usual can continue at all in the House -- on any issue. With Cantor's stance on immigration getting the initial blame for his loss to a tea party candidate, other vulnerable Republicans may swing even further to the right in trying to avoid his fate.

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But Cicilline says that if they do so, it will be at their own peril.

"If the Republican House leadership thinks the answer to yesterday's election is to do nothing, I think they're in for a rude awakening come November, because the American people have had it," he said. "They want things done."

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