WASHINGTON -- The Senate narrowly failed yesterday to override President Bush's veto of a $6.4 billion bill to extend jobless pay to millions of workers who have exhausted their basic benefits.
The action touched off immediate efforts to find agreement on a less expensive, more modest way to help the long-term unemployed.
Republicans tried to push through an alternative immediately after the vote. But Democrats -- unwilling yet to cede what they believe to be the political high ground on the issue -- rebuffed the move. Republicans said they still hoped for a compromise, but Democratic leaders indicated they first want to discuss other options.
Mr. Bush vetoed the benefits bill Friday, calling it "poorly designed" and "unnecessarily expensive." He contended that a large-scale extension of benefits was not needed in an improving economy, and he objected to increasing the federal deficit by borrowing money to pay for the extension.
Yesterday's 65-35 vote to override the veto fell two short of the two-thirds majority needed to save the Democrats' measure. Eight Republicans joined the Senate's 57 Democrats in voting to override -- the same lineup that had sent the bill to the president Oct. 1.
The vote maintained Mr. Bush's perfect record on vetoes. Congress has tried and failed 12 times to override the president. In all, Mr. Bush has vetoed 23 bills.
"We have a record number of people out of work," said Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, D-Texas, chief sponsor of the bill. "We have the highest number of people who have exhausted their unemployment benefits in 40 years. A lot of folks are just hanging on, hoping and waiting for this economy to turn around. They need help now."
But Republicans argued that the bill would add $6 billion to the federal budet deficit and would have cleared the way for further breaches of the bipartisan budget agreement that set strict spending limits.
"If we bust the budget here and drive up the deficit now, we'll find reasons to do it later on, and deficits will soar ever upward," said Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas.
The vetoed bill would have provided up to 20 more weeks of jobless pay to workers who had exhausted their basic 26 weeks of benefits.
It also would have eased strict eligibility requirements that are preventing hundreds of thousands of workers, even in states with high unemployment, from qualifying for extended payments.
Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., and Sen. Dave Durenberger, R-Minn., proposed alternatives that they said would pay for themselves without adding to the deficit or requiring higher taxes.
Under Mr. Dole's bill, workers whose basic benefits had expired would get up to an additional 10 weeks of assistance. Mr. Durenberger's would provide up to 15 weeks.
Both would finance them by authorizing the Federal Communications Commission to auction unused radio-telephone frequencies and by collecting unpaid student-loan debts.
Democrats contended that, because of the slow rate of economic recovery, the GOP plans would not last long enough to provide for most jobless workers.
Budget Committee Chairman Jim Sasser, D-Tenn., cited a Congressional Budget Office report that said speedy auction of the radio frequencies would "amount to a massive fire sale [and] result in a loss to the Treasury of as much as $2.5 billion."
The Republicans who voted to override were John H. Chafee of Rhode Island, William S. Cohen of Maine, Alfonse M. D'Amato of New York, James M. Jeffords of Vermont, Bob Kasten of Wisconsin, Mark O. Hatfield and Bob Packwood of Oregon, and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.