Booker's first big push: extend unemployment benefits

Booker Senate
Newly-elected Democratic senator from New Jersey, former Newark Mayor Cory Booker, left, and his mother, Carolyn Booker, meet with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nev., before being officially sworn in on the floor of the Senate, Thursday, Oct. 31, 2013, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON – Cory Booker has surprised many people here as a U.S. Senator, because the famous Democrat has actively avoided the spotlight in his first three months on the job.

He has not given any major speeches, he sidesteps interview requests from the national media and at one recent press conference jam-packed with lawmakers, he spoke last and spoke for just seven seconds – enough time to say he supports the bill and fade back behind his more senior Senate peers.

But Booker is stepping out of his self-imposed strait jacket as he pushes for an extension of emergency unemployment benefits. He has 11(!) public events planned Friday and Saturday throughout New Jersey to promote the cause, and last week gave the most impassioned public comments of his tenure at a press conference on the same issue.

This was Booker going full Booker: rhetorical flourishes, his favorite African proverb, a Langston Hughes quote and an alliterative plea on moral grounds to extend a program that he said would help those in need.

“We cannot allow the culture of our country to change in this mendacious environment we have here in Washington,” Booker said at one point in his seven-minute thirty-eight second monologue. “We cannot allow this community of compassion, this country of caring to turn into a crass cauldron, a cacophonous environment where we don’t care about each other.”

And he cited an “African ideal that’s in the American culture that says if you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far go together,” returning to a staple of his stump speech.

What’s noteworthy here is not Booker’s position – Democrats across the board have made extending unemployment benefits a top priority in the new year – but that he made this the issue he has chosen to address as he tries to make his first big mark as a Senator.

“What I intend to do is go back during this recess and take a good amount of time and try to continue to talk to people that are dealing with this and take their stories back down here because they’re obviously not being heard,” Booker told me after the press conference (and before announcing his busy run through the state). “Our New Jersey family is hurting because of this crisis, and so, yeah, I’m upset about this.”

This is the role some Democrats hope Booker can fill: the charismatic, impassioned voice of the left, one who can draw attention to their message and serve as a counter-weight to the influential and media-savvy entreaties from the likes of Sens. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz.

Booker’s focus on unemployment benefits also runs against a criticism he has faced from some liberals: that he is really a business-aligned moderate who conceals himself in high-minded rhetoric. (Two of those critics, 2013 primary opponents U.S. Reps. Frank Pallone and Rush Holt, will join Booker at two of his events Friday).

“O, let America be America again,” he said at the unemployment press conference last week, quoting Hughes. As he so often does, Booker couched his pleas in sweeping images.

“From the shore area to the Delaware River, from the mountains of Sussex County to the Delaware Bay, from the Highlands to the Pinelands, all over New Jersey you’re hearing the same call to the consciousness of our country, of our leadership.”

Today he begins to travel to many of those very regions of New Jersey as he argues for an extension.

Booker’s low profile until now has been in keeping with Senate tradition for freshmen and perhaps in reaction to polls that showed that some voters saw him as a glory hog. Ironically, though, Booker may have to use his big name to really influence the unemployment debate, because his appearances in New Jersey are unlikely to move the votes that Democrats need to move. He and fellow New Jersey Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez both support an unemployment extension already.

What Booker’s national profile could do (in theory) is give him a broad platform to make his case and perhaps ramp up pressure on Republicans who are on the fence, and whose votes are needed to pass the extension.

Most Republicans have resisted calls to further extend emergency unemployment benefits, worried about the $6.5 billion cost. Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) has voted against the extension, citing the impact on the deficit and a lack of consideration of GOP amendments.

After the press conference speech last week, Booker stood in the back of the room, allowing Sen. Jack Reed (D., R.I.) and U.S. Rep. Sander Levin (D., Mich.) to handle questions. He didn’t speak again at the press conference.

It’s not clear whether Booker, after this fight, will simply return to being a quiet freshman, or if he will now be more outspoken. On this issue, at least, he has opened up the rhetorical floodgates for the first time in Washington.

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