WASHINGTON -- In a direct challenge to President Bush, the House gave final congressional approval yesterday to a $5.8 billion emergency extension of unemployment compensation for jobless workers who have exhausted their regular benefits.
By a vote of 375-45 on the first anti-recession measure of the year, the House adopted the Senate-passed bill and sent it to the president despite White House contentions that the recession is ending.
Democratic leaders rushed the legislation through Congress before a monthlong August recess, partly to confront the president with a choice of accepting it or taking the politically risky course of appearing to turn
his back on millions of unemployed.
The bill, which would take effect Sept. 1 and expire July 4, would provide four, seven, 13 or 20 weeks of additional compensation, with the length of the extension geared to each state's average jobless rate over the last six months.
Mr. Bush deferred a decision on whether to accept or reject the bill. For the bill to take effect, he would not only have to sign it but would also have to declare that extending benefits for an estimated 6 million unemployed was an emergency under last year's budget agreement.
Mr. Bush told reporters he preferred a $3.2 billion bill sponsored by Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., that was defeated on a voice vote in the Senate Thursday night.
"The last thing we want to do is break the budget agreement and . . . increase the deficit," Mr. Bush said. "I do not want to see higher interest rates that would have a devastating effect on this economy, and that's what would result if we go and pass a lot of legislation that busts the budget agreement."
Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell, D-Maine, said later that the bill approved yesterday complied with the emergency requirements of last year's budget accord.
Republicans in the House voted by a margin of almost 3-to-1 for the bill after Mr. Bush met with them at the Capitol to discuss his trip to Moscow and indicated that he might not approve payment of the extra benefits, even if he signs the legislation.
"If the president vetoes this bill or fails to trigger the benefits, he'll fire the opening shot of the 1992 campaign at the heart of American working people, and we intend to see that he pays a heavy price for it," said Representative Thomas J. Downey, D-N.Y., a leading advocate of the bill.
Speaker Thomas S. Foley, D-Wash., said that if the president blocked the payment of extended benefits, Congress would pass another bill in early September.
Voting for the bill were 256 Democrats, 118 Republicans and one independent, while 44 Republicans and only one Democrat -- Representative Timothy J. Penny of Minnesota -- voted against. The Maryland delegation voted 8-0 in favor.
Under the bill's formula, states with unemployment averaging 8 percent or more in the latest six-month period would qualify for 20 extra weeks of benefits. States with 7 percent to 8 percent jobless would be entitled to 13 weeks, and states with rates between 6 percent and 7 percent would get seven extra weeks.
All other states with rates below 6 percent would pay four weeks additional compensation to workers who exhausted their regular benefits.
Maryland's rate hit 6 percent in June, up two-tenths of a percentage point from May but 1 point below the national level at that time.
Maryland's unemployment statistics lag behind the national figures by one month.
The bill would also reduce the waiting period and extend the duration of jobless pay for members of the armed forces who are forced to leave the service.