WASHINGTON -- With hundreds of thousands of workers running out of unemployment compensation benefits, the Senate Finance Committee today approved legislation extending benefits beyond the current 26-week limit.
But the proposal faces obstacles in Congress, as well as opposition from the Bush administration.
More than 18,000 unemployed workers in Maryland have exhausted their benefits, state officials say. Under the committee bill, they could receive from four to seven additional weeks of compensation.
Workers in states with high unemployment rates would be eligible for up to 20 additional weeks.
The committee vote came a day after hundreds of workers from Maryland and other states rallied outside the U.S. Labor Department.
"My benefits will run out in two weeks," said Sandy Jones, 41, who was carrying a sign reading, "26 Weeks Is Not Enough."
Jones, a single mother from Essex, said she was a $21,000-a-year secretary for an architectural engineering firm in Baltimore until February, when declining business cost her and other workers their jobs. Since then, she has been unable to find work that pays enough to support her and her child.
Like other workers at the union-organized rally, she cast doubt on the Bush administration's contention that the recession is ending.
"If you get your foot in the door for an interview, you're either underqualified or overqualified," she said, adding that some employers are taking advantage of the situation by offering lower wages. She said the next stop for her may be the welfare office. "I don't wish to do that," she said.
The cries of people like Jones are being heard in Congress. Last week, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Sen. Lloyd M. Bentsen, D-Texas, raised workers' hopes by proposing an emergency extension of as long as 20 weeks.
The length of the extension would depend on a state's unemployment rate. Unemployment nationally reached 7 percent in June, the highest total in five years. States with unemployment rates of 7 percent could provide 13 more weeks of benefits; an 8 percent rate would trigger up to 20 additional weeks.
In Maryland, where 148,000 people were jobless as of May and the rate was 5.8 percent, workers could receive up to four additional weeks of benefits. They could receive seven weeks if Maryland's unemployment rate reaches 6 percent.
Although the finance committee passed the bill 15 to 4, it faces an uncertain future, with the possibility that Senate opponents may try to hold up the legislation.
House legislation extending benefits has been stalled for some time in the Ways and Means Committee. Many members are reluctant to raise taxes on employers, who fund the unemployment benefits system. Lawmakers also don't want to break last year's budget agreement with the administration, which limited new spending unless matched by cuts.
But the House bill's prospects improved yesterday when House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, D-Wash., persuaded committee chairman Dan Rostenkowski, D-Ill., to take up the measure, the Washington Post reported today. Rostenkowski and the bill's sponsor, Rep. Thomas J. Downey, D-N.Y., were said to be working out the details.
Assuming the legislation clears Congress, the next hurdle is the Bush administration, which argues that there's no need for an extension because the recession is ending. Michael Boskin, chairman of Bush's Council of Economic Advisers, said Tuesday that the administration would "look much more favorably" on extending benefits if they were offset by spending cuts elsewhere.
The issue has strong political overtones because many Democrats see it as an opportunity to score points at Bush's expense while burnishing their party's image as a voice of the working person.
Nonetheless, Democrats themselves are split over how to fund an extension. The different concerns are reflected in the views of Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, D-Md., and Maryland Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-3rd, a member of the House Ways and Means Committee.
Sarbanes and Bentsen are the most outspoken Senate supporters of an extension. Both spoke at the rally, firing up the crowd by saying that if President Bush can support emergency aid to the Kurds in Iraq and to storm-ravaged Bangladesh, then he can find money for American workers.
Sarbanes noted in an interview that the federal unemployment trust fund designated to pay extended benefits has more than $8 billion. It's not being tapped much now because only a handful of states qualify for extended benefits under present rules.