WASHINGTON -- Congressional Democrats, who battled President Bush for months last year over extra jobless benefits, said yesterday that they expect White House cooperation now as they rush through a new bill to provide another 13 weeks of payments to unemployed Americans.
Barring unexpected delays, the measure could be signed into law by Mr. Bush in mid-February, just days before the first presidential primary in New Hampshire at the start of the 1992 campaign. The legislation would expire Oct. 3, a month before the Nov. 3 election.
Mr. Bush, who has acknowledged that he misjudged the severity of the downturn and whose popularity has plummeted in national opinion polls, signaled that he would sign the first recession relief measure of 1992 if Congress provides a way to pay for the additional benefits.
But he denied that he had undergone a so-called election-year conversion, indicating that he would favor extension of jobless benefits again only if the bill, like the measure finally passed last November, conforms to the budget accord hammered out in 1990 between the White House and Congress.
The developments came as the Department of Labor announced that new claims for unemployment insurance -- reflecting recent layoffs -- climbed by 46,000 to 447,000 in the week ending Jan. 11. A four-week average of fresh claims, considered a more reliable indicator of job trends, fell by 31,000 to 434,000 but remained at recession levels.
Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, D-Ill., chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said that he was willing to open negotiations immediately with the Bush administration on ways to finance another $4.5 billion in unemployment compensation for jobless workers who exhaust their rights to regular benefits this year.
"I'd like to pay for as much of this bill as we can," Mr. Rostenkowski said shortly after testimony in favor of an emergency declaration that would avoid the budget agreement's pay-as-you-go requirements. He said that part of the financing could come from $3.7 billion in excess funds that the Office of Management and Budget expects to be raised by legislation already passed.
Some Democrats favor declaration of an emergency by the president to speed passage of the legislation without raising revenues or making spending cuts to offset the additional outlays.
Sounding a note of caution, House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel, R-Ill., said that he backed the extended benefits but wanted Congress to come up with a way to pay for them rather than borrow the funds and increase the massive deficit.
"The worst message to send is to have the first spending bill of this session declared an emergency, " Mr. Michel said in testimony to the Ways and Means subcommittee on human resources. "During this election year, it would signal the opening of the floodgates for every popular spending bill or tax cut proposal that comes down the pike."
Without waiting for the president's economic recovery package in his State of the Union address, Mr. Rostenkowski's committee plans to put the new jobless aid legislation on a fast track for approval Tuesday.
House passage is expected by the end of next week with the Senate poised to follow suit and put the bill on Mr. Bush's desk well before New Hampshire voters go to the polls Feb. 18 in the nation's first presidential primary.
The legislation would allow states to pay an extra 13 weeks of jobless benefits from June 13 -- when the present emergency program is set to expire -- through Oct. 3. If the bill becomes law, jobless workers in the worst-off states would be entitled to a maximum of 33 weeks of emergency compensation, while all others would get at least 26 extra weeks of such payments.
The president vetoed one bill and blocked payment of extra benefits in August and October last year before Democrats in Congress bowed to his wishes and sent him a bill that offset the cost of the additional payments through a speedup in corporate tax collections.
That legislation -- extending benefits for up to 20 weeks in the states hardest hit by the recession and another 13 weeks in all others -- was signed by Mr. Bush but did not take full effect until December.