WASHINGTON -- Sen. Lloyd Bentsen appears to have broken the partisan logjam over extending unemployment benefits, and a compromise package that would resume payments to jobless workers is imminent, congressional sources say.
President Bush and congressional Republicans reacted favorably yesterday to the Texas Democrat's proposal to pay for additional unemployment compensation by collecting taxes more quickly from wealthy taxpayers who file quarterly.
"We're working at the problem, and it's terribly important that we get it out," Mr. Bentsen said.
Mr. Bush, who has blocked two attempts by the Democratic-controlled Congress to extend unemployment benefits, told small-business executives yesterday, "I strongly support an extension that doesn't bust the budget agreement and add to everybody's taxes."
The president also said he was "a little annoyed at people playing politics" with the issue. Democrats have accused Republicans of being out of touch with people suffering hardship because of tough economic conditions.
Republican congressional leaders who met with Mr. Bush yesterday said he was eager for a deal. "I think the time has come to really get serious about putting together a compromise. The president feels that way," said Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss.
Until now, Democrats have insisted that extending unemployment benefits up to 20 weeks be paid for on an emergency basis. Mr. Bush and Republicans countered that such a plan would violate last year's budget deal, which imposed severe spending limits to reduce the deficit.
Mr. Bentsen's plan would close a tax loophole for the rich to raise most of the estimated $5.2 billion needed to finance the additional payments to the jobless for five years.
Higher-income taxpayers who expect their incomes to rise sharply would have to pay their quarterly estimated taxes based on the current year's estimated income. Currently, such taxpayers are permitted to defer much of their tax bill by estimating taxes based on the previous year's liability.
Jobless workers in states with the highest unemployment rates would qualify for up to 20 weeks of benefits. Those who had lost their jobs as of March 1 and still did not have jobs would be eligible for the supplemental benefits.
Sounding an optimistic note, House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, D-Wash., said, "Now there are proposals that I think should be acceptable in terms of the financing of the bill, and it can be completely financed under those terms, so I can't imagine what opposition would still remain on the Republican side to moving forward."