Senate OKs extended jobless funds

$8 billion package is only economic step parties agree on

February 07, 2002|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The Senate voted unanimously yesterday to approve a 13-week extension of benefits for unemployed workers - the only step that Democrats and Republicans could agree on to help Americans hurt by the recession.

The House is also expected soon to back the measure, which would provide additional benefits to about 2 million jobless people over the next year - including 18,000 Marylanders - who exhaust the regular 26 weeks of payments that most states offer.

The aid would be extended retroactively to those whose regular unemployment benefits ran out beginning the week of the Sept. 11 terrorists attacks.

President Bush called the benefit extension, which would cost about $8 billion this year, "the very minimum" that Congress can do. He lamented the Senate's failure to bridge its partisan differences and pass a much broader package of tax cuts, along with the jobless benefits, that Bush said could accelerate an economic recovery.

"At the minimum, they need to take care of the workers," the president said.

"But it's important for Congress to realize that our economy has not yet fully recovered. And therefore, I believe we still need to provide stimulus for economic growth so that there's jobs."

The Senate voted to extend unemployment benefits after it fell four votes short of the 60 needed to overcome procedural hurdles that Republicans used to block a Democratic stimulus bill. Seven Republicans voted with 49 Democrats in support of the stimulus measure.

The Democratic package would have provided $300 tax rebates to low-income workers, business tax credits for the purchase of equipment and additional Medicaid funding to the states, along with the extension of jobless benefits.

But with most Republicans pressing for votes on further amendments and with no end to the debate in sight, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle halted consideration of a stimulus bill and called instead for the approval of the jobless benefits by unanimous consent.

"This is far overdue already," Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat, argued in support of extending the jobless aid.

"You have people out of work now whose benefits have already run out and others for whom they will soon run out. If we can take care of people who are in real need - desperate need - we will at least be removing that aspect of the problem."

As of December, about 130,600 people were unemployed in Maryland. About 12,000 of them have used up their jobless benefits since the Sept. 11 attacks. They, and other jobless workers who exhaust their 26 weeks of regular benefits, can receive the extended aid, through the week of Jan. 6, 2003.

In Maryland, the average weekly unemployment benefit check is $234, which is subject to state and federal taxes.

Congress had long been expected to extend unemployment benefits, as it did during the recessions of the early 1980s and early 1990s. But lawmakers in both parties, as well as Bush, said they hoped to do much more to help workers individually and to energize the economy as a whole.

Last year, the Republican-led House approved a $100 billion package of individual and business tax cuts that would have accompanied the additional jobless aid. Senate Democrats had hoped to raise the level of unemployment aid and to cover part-time workers as well. At one point during months of negotiations, Bush and many Republicans had also agreed to provide tax credits to help the jobless buy health insurance.

But the stimulus talks collapsed in December before Congress adjourned for its holiday recess. Since then, election year politics have convinced some lawmakers that it's more advantageous to hold out for their priorities than to yield just for the sake of passing a stimulus bill. There is also a growing perception that the economy is starting to recover on its own.

Each party blamed the other for the failure of a broad economic recovery package.

"The Republicans killed the economic stimulus bill today, just as they attempted to kill it now for the last three weeks, and I think it's unfortunate," Daschle said.

"They killed the opportunity to provide for rebates to those who got no tax assistance whatsoever last year. They killed the opportunity to bring together a compromise."

House Speaker Dennis Hastert, expressing an argument echoed by other Republicans, said it was Daschle who would not compromise. Hastert noted that the majority leader had refused to let the Senate take up a centrist version of the measure that had some support from Democrats as well as Republicans.

"Tom Daschle decided to thwart the will of the Senate majority and kill further consideration of an economic stimulus bill that would have actually helped millions of Americans," Hastert said in a statement. "I think that is a real shame."

The Republicans said they believed they won the political battle because Democrats, who control the Senate, can now be portrayed as obstructionist if no stimulus bill is approved.

By halting the stimulus package, "They've thrown us in the brier patch," Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, a Virginia Republican, said of the Senate Democrats.

Davis, who leads the House Republican campaign effort, said he was looking forward to blaming Daschle and the Democrats for blocking action to help the economy. "I'm the only guy smiling today," Davis said, "because he makes my day."

Sun staff writer Paul West contributed to this article.

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