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A Progressive Agenda

Pope Francis's message on economic justice resonates with many Democrats.
Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images

The progressive wing of the Democratic Party is set to push two of its goals in the New Year: Extension of unemployment benefits and raising the minimum wage.

Bill de Blasio’s inauguration as mayor of New York City and the voices of a handful of left-leaning senators has given a boost to progressivism and its wide-ranging agenda aimed at tackling economic inequality and social injustice.

The first item of that agenda is restoring long-term unemployment insurance for more than a million out-of-work Americans who lost benefits at the behest of House Republicans. It’s an issue that has widespread support beyond progressive circles. Gene Sperling, President Obama’s chief economic adviser, was on the Sunday talk shows urging Congress to restore the program to provide up to 47 weeks of supplemental payments for the unemployed who are still seeking work. Extended benefits — which expired last month — were instituted in 2008 in response to the recession.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid blamed “out-of-touch” congressional Republicans for killing the support system. But, he added, “Republicans around America want us to do something to extend these benefits. Why? Because it’s good for the economy. It’s good for the country.”

Long-term unemployment benefits in times of economic hardship used to have bipartisan support, and the program still has widespread public backing. Hart Research, a Democratic polling firm, found Americans favor extending unemployment insurance by a margin of 55 percent to 34 percent. Public Policy Polling looked at four Republican-held swing congressional districts and found bipartisan majorities of voters supporting an extension of long-term unemployment benefits. PPP also polled House Speaker John Boehner’s constituents, finding that 63 percent favor extending the benefits. That total included a majority (53 percent) of Republican voters.

Congressional Republicans may be feeling the heat on this issue. Many now claim they have no objection to an extension as long as it is offset with spending cuts. Even Kentucky Senator Rand Paul says he supports extending the program as long as it is fully funded, a switch from his position last month when he held that long-term benefits are “a disservice to the people you are trying to help.”

The minimum wage increase — long labeled another “liberal” program — also appears to have grass-roots Republican support. A recent ABC News-Washington Post poll found two-thirds of Americans support a hike in the minimum wage.

Both programs — extending long-term benefits and raising the minimum wage — likely will encounter opposition from congressional Republicans. The New York Times reports that lawmakers in the House see little prospect for action anytime soon on the minimum wage or restoring benefits. Indeed, Republican leaders are tamping down any hope for major legislative action in the new session, which means immigration reform will be put off again.

Republican foot-dragging may be good news for Democrats at the polls in 2014: Expect embattled Democrats to make social justice an issue in the upcoming congressional elections.

Democrats may have a surprising ally in Pope Francis when it comes to pushing their congressional agenda and running on issues of social justice in 2014. The pope has intrigued people of all faiths with his message of economic justice, hardly new Catholic teaching but Pope Francis’s humble style signals renewed emphasis on combating income inequality. “You know,” says Senator Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent who caucuses with Democrats, “we have a strong ally on our side in this issue [of income inequality] — and that is the pope.”

Democrats — including the president — do not hesitate to quote the pope to support their positions on social justice. For many Republicans, the pope’s critique of trickle-down economics and his denunciation of the “economy of exclusion” causes unease. And while Pope Francis has not altered Catholic teaching on social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage, his plea for tolerance on these and other matters does not give much solace to social conservatives.

Identifying with the spiritual leader of the world’s Catholics does not guarantee electoral success for Democrats, but it does give, in the words of Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, “a number of us in the political ranks encouragement… to step up and remember many of the values that brought us to public life.”

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