With deal set, Congress acting on bill for jobless

November 14, 1991|By Peter Osterlund | Peter Osterlund,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON JHC OPB — WASHINGTON -- Congressional Democrats won the final PTC approval of President Bush and his Republican allies yesterday for a $5.2 billion plan to extend additional unemployment benefits to the long-term jobless.

The House Ways and Means Committee was expected to endorse the bill last night, clearing the way for expected House passage today. The Senate is expected to follow suit by tomorrow, approving the bill to extend up to 20 weeks of additional coverage to those who have exhausted the standard 26 weeks of benefits.

Lawmakers suggested that the package would be ready for the president's signature by this weekend and that checks could be in the hands of eligible unemployed by Thanksgiving.

"I just wanted to tell you how pleased I am with your hard work," President Bush, speaking via telephone from Air Force One, told a group of Republican lawmakers.

House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, D-Wash., also hailed the result, though not without adding that "it's been too long coming."

Yesterday's action came at the end of a tortuous day of back-room negotiation, as both sides argued over how to pay for the bill. With the removal of the final sticking point -- about stepped-up collections of student loans -- lawmakers were able to declare a truce in the bloody, four-month political war over unemployment benefits.

That truce was of particular importance to Mr. Bush, who had vetoed two earlier versions of the bill.

Republicans contended that those versions were cheap shots: The Democrats' earlier initiatives avoided ticklish proposals for raising the funds and, instead, merely suggested tacking the cost onto the federal budget deficit. Those arguments fell on deaf ears, and the president's popularity plunged with the economy as Democrats accused him of impotence in the face of disaster.

Terrified by the political implications, a group of congressional Republicans, led by House Republican Leader Robert H. Michel of Illinois, pressured the president to cut a deal. Democratic leaders, meanwhile, felt their hands forced in the direction of compromise both by rank-and-file members and by organized labor, who determined that enough political points had been scored and that it was time to get the checks in the mail.

Consequently, the bill that was headed for the House floor today represents something of a retreat for Democrats, as well as for Republicans.

The package would provide six, 13 or 20 weeks of extra benefits for the estimated 300,000 people who deplete the standard coverage every month and remain without work. Most people who use up their standard benefits between last March 1 and next August would qualify for the extra checks -- the exact amount of extra coverage depending on the unemployment levels for each state.

Marylanders who exhaust their initial 26 weeks of benefits would get an extra 13 weeks of benefits under the bill.

Maryland's jobless rate, which was 5.2 percent in September, has typically been lower than the national average, which was 6.7 percent that month.

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