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Pressured on poverty programs, GOP divided on defense

President Obama and his party are pursuing a new strategy to force the GOP into a debate on popular antipoverty programs, beginning with this week’s focus on the extension of long-term unemployment benefits. It’s a plan designed to frame this year’s midterm elections in populist terms – an approach that Democrats believe will exploit a central GOP vulnerability with voters. And Republicans – for the first time in a while – are now trying to find an effective defense.  

Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell voices frustration toward Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid over a lack of amendments being debated in the Senate relating to extending unemployment benefits.

Yet those attempts run against the GOP’s broader actions, as conservatives demand historic cuts to food assistance programs and decline to extend aid to unemployed Americans. 

GOP opposition to an increase in the national minimum wage and repeated votes over whether to repeal all or part of Obamacare could also hand Democrats an aid to employ a populist playbook that the party used with great success in 2012. 

“If they want to go toe-to-toe on this terrain, I think Democrats are more than willing to have that fight,” said Brad Woodhouse, the president of the progressive activist group Americans United for Change. “They'll be playing on our turf if that's how they want to prosecute this election.”

Democrats’ optimism is fueled by figures like one in December’s NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, which found they enjoyed a 28 point advantage over the GOP on the question of which party is better about showing compassion and concern for people. (The flip side, though, is that Republicans had a 10-point edge on which party is best-equipped to deal with the economy.)

The emphasis comes as the issue of inequality and opportunity become increasingly animating issues for the Democratic Party. For example, Bill de Blasio rode a wave of frustration toward increased inequality during his successful bid for mayor of New York City last year. 

While some in the GOP have grown attuned to voters’ restlessness, Republicans seem as divided as ever as to how and whether to manage Democrats’ coming onslaught. 

The party is being pulled in several different directions. First, the GOP is hardly to inclined to support most anything backed by Obama during an election year. Second, influential conservative activist groups have pressured Republican lawmakers to cut food stamps and vote down extensions in unemployment insurance – and Republicans who fear a primary challenge this year have heeded their advice. And third, Republicans struggle to rally around an alternative group of proposals that would clearly address joblessness and poor economic mobility; most conservative proposals have revolved around familiar themes of repealing the Affordable Care Act, undoing regulations and cutting taxes.

Witness the internal split on Tuesday’s vote over whether to extend unemployment benefits for three months. Six Republican senators (most of whom are regarded as moderates) broke ranks to help Democrats pass the extension. But the legislation is almost sure to die in the GOP-controlled House, where leaders have demanded offsets to finance the extension. 

"Instead of working on reforms that would actually help people overcome the challenges so many of them face in this economy, Democrats plan to exploit these folks for political gain,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said ahead of Tuesday’s unemployment insurance vote. (McConnell proposed a one-year delay of Obamacare’s individual mandate as a tradeoff for a one-year extension of jobless benefits.)

The GOP continues to wrestle with food assistance, as well. Republicans could only muster the necessary votes to approve a must-pass farm bill after stripping almost $40 billion from food stamp programs, an historic cut. 

President Barack Obama delivers remarks Tuesday at the White House about extending unemployment insurance benefits for Americans who are out of work.

And conservatives have even balked at times at approving House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s, R-Va., suite of “Making Life Work” proposals that were finely-tuned to project Republican empathy for the poor and working class.

Still, the party also seems to have realized that it can’t weather the Democratic offensive idly. GOP leaders have spent the past year working to improve their outreach, and repackage well-worn conservative proposals into overarching middle class-friendly proposals.

Party luminaries like Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan have forcefully labeled 50-year-old “War on Poverty” programs a failure, instead proposing a variety of market-friendly initiatives as an alternative to more government spending, their criticism of entrenched antipoverty programs could undercut their efforts to advance an alternative.

Republicans would much rather fight out the election over Obamacare and the effects the GOP argues health reform will have on the economy and health care. But as frustration toward stagnant wages and mounting inequality grows, the GOP will have to work to show to voters that they care about those issues, too.

Whether those efforts are mere lip service or something more resonant might just be decided at the polls this fall.