U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan on Monday amplified her criticism of Republican state lawmakers for blocking long-term federal unemployment benefits for North Carolina workers, calling the move “irresponsible and cold-hearted.”
Republican legislative leaders “willingly and knowingly” violated a federal law that led to the end of the benefits in July for 170,000 workers, Hagan said, as she highlighted her effort to restore the payments in a bill that faces a U.S. Senate vote Monday evening. ( More on the legislation here.)
Speaking at a press conference in Raleigh, Hagan said the U.S. Department of Labor ensured her that North Carolina workers who are still unemployed will be eligible to restart the federal emergency benefits if the measure becomes law – an entirely uncertain prospect in the divided Congress.
The effort also carries political implications, putting Hagan on the offense against Republicans – and specifically House Speaker Thom Tillis, her leading contender in the GOP primary – after she endured a barrage of criticism in recent months for her statements about the federal health care law. Like President Barack Obama, Hagan declared that people who liked their health insurance plans could keep them, a pledge broken and rated by fact-checkers as “the lie of the year” in 2013.
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Republicans call Hagan’s effort to restart the benefits for North Carolina workers pure politics, noting that she didn’t introduce legislation to this effect right before the benefits were cut off in July. “Make no mistake, this is exactly what Hagan is trying to do right now, in another not-so-subtle and desperate attempt to distract North Carolinians from her leading role in the Obamacare debacle,” said Daniel Keylin, a Republican Party spokesman in an statement issued before Hagan’s press conference.
Gov. Pat McCrory and GOP lawmakers said they needed to cut benefits to save businesses from higher unemployment taxes. Asked what she would have done in such a situation, Hagan, a former state lawmaker, didn’t have an answer. But she said, “I wouldn’t have put the burden on the backs of the unemployed.”
Democratic state Sen. Josh Stein, who stood next to Hagan at the event, said Democrats supported the benefit cuts but wanted implementation delayed six months so it wouldn’t affect the long-term federal benefits.
Economists suggest the end of long-term federal benefits spurred people to go get work and the move is contributing to the state’s declining jobless rate. Asked about this, Hagan didn’t respond directly. She said her focus is adding jobs and getting people off the unemployment rolls.
Despite the declining rate, she said the unemployment rate is too high and is skewed by workers who have given up looking for jobs.
UPDATE: Tillis and Senate leader Phil Berger later responded with a joint statement that echoed the Republican Party’s line of attack, noting that they asked her to exempt the state for any federal penalty before they approved the unemployment law.
The joint statement reads: “It’s about time Kay Hagan finally admitted she could have helped North Carolina’s long-term unemployed, but the fact is she’s a year late and $600 million worth of benefits short. If she truly cared about these North Carolinians, she would have done what the General Assembly called on her to do more than a year ago. But she dropped the ball and is now desperately trying to spin her way out of the damage she created.”