WASHINGTON -- As the presidential campaign season finally groans into gear, a congressional debate over unemployment benefits reflects a Democratic effort to throw President Bush on the defensive and recapture the hearts and votes of blue-collar laborers lost to the Republican party.
He has already rejected the Democrats' $5.8 billion plan to extend unemployment payments to those whose benefits have run out or are about to end: On Aug. 17, he signed their bill, then refused to declare the economic emergency that would allow the funds to be distributed.
But with the unemployment rate holding steady at 6.8 percent -- about 8.5 million people -- the issue and the bill have reappeared with a vengeance. A more generous variant was handily adopted last week by the Democrat-dominated House. The Senate, meanwhile, prepared to vote this week on the same legislation that foundered in August.
"For unemployed parents in Port Isabel, Texas, or Jackson, Mich., or anywhere else in this nation who can't pay the mortgage, or meet the car payments, this is a time when they expect their government to respond, to help them," said Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, D-Texas.
"The Bush administration," said Sen. Don W. Riegle Jr., D-Mich, "has an economic plan for every country in the world except this one."
Republicans counter that Democrats don't have a plan for any country, including this one, and point to the unemployment bill as evidence. Both Democratic bills would increase the deficit -- the Senate's by $5.8 billion, the House's to the tune of $6.4 billion.
"The Democrats' solution to the unemployment problem is to rack up more debt, to increase the deficit," fumed Senate Republican Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan. "That's the kind of thinking that's got us in trouble in the first place."
Republicans are backing a more modest, $2.5 billion proposal paid for by auctioning radio frequencies and toughening debt collection efforts.
"It pays for itself," said Sen. Pete V. Domenici, R-N.M. "The American people want their government to act responsibly, and that means not ignoring the limits that keep the deficit under control."
So far, the Republican plan has not fared well. The Senate rejected it last month. Democrats dismiss it as a cynical tool to burnish the GOP's image at time when 300,000 people are exhausting their unemployment coverage every month.
"If the president signs our bill, then he's basically saying the economy's in a mess, and that his economic policies have failed," said one Democratic staff member. "That's the first reason he doesn't want to sign it."
Thus, the debate ostensibly turns on the question of whether the goal of easing unemployment's sting is worth the cost of boosting the deficit.
Underneath that courses an election year subtext. On the one hand there is the Democrats' appeal to jobless manufacturing workers who once formed the backbone of their party yet, in the '80s, gravitated to the Republican party of Ronald Reagan; on the other, the Republicans' appeal to small business and middle-class fears of uncontrolled federal spending and deficits.
The Democrats' two bills would allow people who have exhausted the regular 26 weeks of jobless benefits to receive up to 20 extra weeks of support, though fewer states would qualify for the full 20 weeks under the Senate's bill than under the House's. The Senate would provide everyone with at least four additional weeks of payments, the House with five, with the amount depending on a state's unemployment rate.
The Senate's bill would also predicate the payment of benefits on the president's declaration of an economic emergency -- something the president refused to do when he signed the bill last month, thus effectively killing it. The House bill requires no emergency declaration.
"The Democrats are bringing this up totally to try to create a political issue," said Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas.
The Republican plan would provide up to 10 weeks of additional benefits for the long-term unemployed, with a minimum of six extra weeks available in every state.
"It just gives the administration some sort of protective coloration," said Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, D-Md., chairman of Congress' Joint Economic Committee.
The Democrats' plan calls for quick Senate approval of their bill, followed by an House-Senate negotiation to produce a final version. Most observers expect the final legislation to waive the requirement for an emergency declaration.
By that time, Democrats believe White House officials will have read the handwriting on the wall, attempting instead to broker a compromise. "He can veto it," said one Democratic leadership aide. "And that'll give us our first override."