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Inequality Issue Can Boost Dems

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A year ago, top political strategists pointed to a big stick Democratic candidates could use to beat back a possible Republican landslide in the 2014 midterm elections.

The issue: rising income inequality.

Now the strategy is coming to life with help from Republicans in Congress.

With the GOP majority in the House blocking an extension of long-term unemployment insurance, a group of House Democrats, led by Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), circulated a letter recently asking for a meeting to discuss the topic not with Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) but with the incoming House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).

Press reports described this as an "end-run" around Boehner who, along with the outgoing Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), had refused to take up the issue for a vote in the House.

The Democrats, smelling a ripe campaign issue, are quick to point out that if Congress does not act before the end of the year, more than 5 million Americans will lose their unemployment benefits and be left out in the cold.

Democrats also have ammunition on income inequality from the Republican refusal to renew the Highway Trust Fund.

President Obama has said that without congressional action to renew the trust fund, which is used for infrastructure spending, many states will have to stop working on projects. He estimated that 700,000 people could lose their jobs.

"That would be like Congress threatening to lay off the entire population of Denver, or Seattle, or Boston," the president said in an artfully positioned speech on the Washington, D.C. waterfront with a bridge under repair behind him. "Middle-class families can't wait for Republicans in Congress to do stuff," the president added.

He proposed restoring infrastructure projects by closing loopholes in the corporate tax system. "It's not crazy," Obama said. "It's not socialism. It's not 'the imperial presidency.' No laws are broken. We're just building roads and bridges."

Meanwhile an unlikely ally — the business community — is bolstering the Democrats' complaints about the lack of GOP support for growing the economy. The president of the National Association of Manufacturers, Jay Timmons, has charged Republicans with ignoring the concerns of the people who create jobs.

The business leaders' priorities include reviving the highway trust fund, acting on immigration reform, and giving legislative approval for the Export-Import Bank.

Timmons, citing Cantor's defeat in a recent primary, criticized Tea Party Republicans for siding with Democrats on the far left and "demonizing American businesses and trying to throw out those who are willing to govern."

Gerald Seib, a Wall Street Journal columnist, described Timmons' speech as "an especially telling sign of the times" because he "questioned the business community's traditional leaning on Republicans to advance [the business] agenda in Washington."

The power of income inequality as a political issue is evident in polls. The economy is still the number one concern of voters, left, center and right, in every opinion poll. Gallup polling from earlier this year found that 67 percent of Americans say they are concerned about income inequality.

The House Republicans' aversion to anything resembling "stimulus spending" puts them in a dangerous political box. They fear offending Tea Party Republicans who refuse to acknowledge that the last stimulus helped lighten a depressed economic picture. But their indifference puts them at risk of alienating voters calling for Congress to expedite the nation's recovery.

Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.), the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, recently announced plans to force Boehner to act on extending unemployment benefits before the year's end.

Levin's tactics come in addition to Cicilline's plan to get Boehner's attention and focus midterm voters' attention on Republicans' refusal to help the unemployed.

Cicilline has joined with Reps. Frank LoBiondo (R-N.J.) and Dan Kildee (D-Mich.) to introduce a bipartisan bill extending coverage for the long-term unemployed. Some Republican congressmen have joined the effort.

Their legislation is an identical House companion to the bipartisan bill sponsored in the upper chamber by Sens. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) and Jack Reed (D-R.I.).

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) is giving a taste of the power income inequality could have as an election-year issue. "Republicans," she said in a Senate speech earlier this year, "line up to protect billions in tax breaks and subsidies for big corporations with armies of lobbyists, but they can't find a way to help struggling families trying to get back on their feet."

Look for Democrats to put jobs, income inequality, and lapsed unemployment benefits front and center in their campaigns this year. Those issues could keep them from losing their own jobs.

Juan Williams is a Fox News political analyst and author of the bestseller Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965.

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