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Special session failure highlights struggle within GOP

Sen. John McComish (standing) speaks to Senate Majority Leader Andy Biggs during the special session June 13. Biggs was against the plan to extend unemployment benefits by an additional 20 weeks, while McComish said the failure of the effort was in how the issue was presented to lawmakers. (Photo by Ryan Cook/Arizona Capitol Times)

Sen. John McComish (standing) speaks to Senate Majority Leader Andy Biggs during the special session June 13. Biggs was against the plan to extend unemployment benefits by an additional 20 weeks, while McComish said the failure of the effort was in how the issue was presented to lawmakers. (Photo by Ryan Cook/Arizona Capitol Times)

Like taxes, budget and immigration, the special session that failed to extend unemployment aid to those who have been out of work the longest became another arena in the war to define the soul of the Republican Party.

The program’s most vocal critics and most ardent supporters are, not surprisingly, members of the GOP.

On one side are people like Gov. Jan Brewer who are less bound to ideology and more attracted to pragmatic solutions, including raising taxes if they believe that’s what it takes to get the job done.

On the other side are fiscal hawks drawn to economist and free-market advocate Friedrich Hayek’s ideas and less likely to settle for short-term answers if they believe those solutions would ultimately lead to a more serious malady.

Actually, the extension of jobless aid by 20 weeks had all the makings of a classic struggle between the two sides.

For those who supported it, the extension was practical — it wouldn’t have spent a dime of state money — pressing and morally the right thing to do, since it would have helped Arizonans who are struggling to find work in an economy that, after losing hundreds of thousands of jobs, is only tentatively recovering.

Those who balked agreed it would help Arizonans, but argued it was the wrong kind of help. For critics, the federally funded program has all the hallmarks of big government and failed economic policies, and it increases the nation’s debt.

Add to this the governor’s increasingly strained relationship with the Legislature after she closed out the regular legislative session with a slew of vetoes of bills near and dear to many conservative lawmakers, and the result is gridlock.

But the complaint that the governor haphazardly called for the special session and tried to impose her will on the Legislature is just a sideshow to the main circus. What’s at play is a continuation of the ideological tug-of-war within the Republican Party.

“It’s a battle of ideology versus the practical approach to government,” said former legislator Pete Hershberger, a moderate Republican who was successfully challenged from the right during a 2008 primary for the state Senate.

Some wouldn’t necessarily agree with Hershberger’s characterization, but the oft-repeated reasons for pushing or rejecting extension of jobless aid tend to reinforce the debate’s ideological dimension.

Actually, the inaction during the special session seemed to reinforce the ascendancy of conservatives in the Legislature — something that became even more apparent since Brewer needed the support of two-thirds of each chamber for the proposal to immediately take effect.

Senate Majority Leader Andy Biggs tried to impress on colleagues that the federal money is not free and that somebody — who he calls the invisible man and woman — will have to pay for the program’s extension: “When we begin using government, and the awesome, coercive power of government, to take from one person or one group of people to redistribute to somebody else, we have an impact on literally thousands and millions of Arizonans.”

For Biggs, that burden would come on top of an “excess of 50 redistributionist programs” like Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps and school lunches.

Echoing the view, Rep. John Kavanagh, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, called extended unemployment benefits a “failed Keynesian Obama stimulus.” He said nothing would persuade him to adopt it.

“I could see maybe extending them to 36 weeks. But 99? That’s not unemployment insurance, that’s welfare,” he said.

The challenge of bridging the two sides’ approach was apparent in Brewer’s arguments for extending the jobless aid program.

“You have to look at the reality of it,” the governor said. “This is the biggest recession of our lifetime and there are serious people out there that certainly, in my opinion, need that additional unemployment to put food on the table, to buy gas, to look for work, even.”

And while some Republican lawmakers support the unemployment benefit extension, they were largely silent during the debates, which were dominated by Republican critics and Democratic supporters of Brewer’s proposal.

Outside the Legislature, however, some Republicans said the Legislature’s decision to rebuff the governor made no sense.

Former Rep. Bill Konopnicki, a Republican from Safford, said the decision means Arizona will lose out economically from any benefits of bringing in federal dollars to the state.

“That’s kicking the economy back in the hole,” he said. “Sometimes, you have to be logical rather than idealistic. Sometimes you have to represent the people, not the party. Sometimes you have to represent the needs of individuals over a philosophy.”

Konopnicki said he understands the arguments against increasing the deficit, but said the Legislature’s decision won’t change what the federal government is doing. In the meantime, it impacts Arizona residents.

Despite the special session ending in a rebuff to the governor, some legislators hope that legislative leaders and Brewer can strike a compromise and that another special session would be called to extend the jobless aid program.

GOP leaders also did not discount the possibility of further talks with Brewer.

“I have it made it clear to the Governor’s Office the door is open,” said Senate President Russell Pearce. “What we’re not going to do is sit around for several days at a cost to the taxpayers while we negotiate a deal.”

Some offered a simpler explanation why the special session was unsuccessful, and if they’re correct in isolating its cause, then a remedy seems plausible.

For Sen. John McComish, R-Phoenix, the fatal error was in how the issue was presented to lawmakers.

“The issue should have been framed as not much more than a technical change to a bill that was passed two years ago almost unanimously,” he said. “But it wasn’t framed that way. It was framed as if this was something brand new.”

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