House backs aid for jobless

GOP deal extends benefits 13 weeks

firms get tax cuts

Partisan standoff ends

Sept. 11 anniversary factor

cutoff near for many who lost work

March 08, 2002|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Nearly six months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Congress appears to have finally agreed to a 13-week extension of unemployment benefits as part of a package to repair the damage done to the economy.

House Republican leaders offered concessions that broke a bitter partisan standoff and won nearly unanimous approval yesterday for a $42 billion measure that would provide the extra benefits for jobless workers and offer modest business tax breaks aimed at creating new jobs.

Democratic Senate leaders tentatively embraced the proposal and scheduled a vote for this morning, when the measure is expected to pass overwhelmingly.

"This bill will help workers who are unemployed by extending their benefits and, most importantly, by helping them get a job," said House Speaker Dennis Hastert.

Hastert and his GOP leadership team ended the impasse by dropping demands for major new tax cuts and a health care tax credit Democrats said would undermine employer-provided health benefits.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, who has twice stripped tax cuts out of House measures and returned to the House bills passed by the Senate that would only extend the jobless benefits, said he was pleased House Republicans had found a middle ground.

"It's overdue and awfully late, but at least within the package are things that Democrats could be supportive of," Daschle said.

President Bush, who proposed an economic stimulus and worker aid package shortly after the attacks, has said he is eager to sign the legislation into law.

"The Senate needs to act and move the bill to my desk," the president said late yesterday. "I look forward to signing it."

The few discordant notes in the House were sounded by Democratic lawmakers who protested that funding for the measure would come from Social Security trust funds because the federal budget is in deficit.

"Over the next three years, workers are going to be paying Social Security taxes so they can give a tax break to their bosses to buy more machines," said Rep. Jim McDermott, a Washington Democrat, who still voted for the bill.

All eight members of Maryland's House delegation supported the measure in the 417-3 tally.

Monday's six-month anniversary of the attacks played a role in pressuring lawmakers to come to terms on extending unemployment benefits. The first of 1.2 million workers laid off since the attacks run out of the 26 weeks of regular benefits beginning next week.

"That deadline is coming up," said House Majority Whip Tom DeLay in explaining the impetus for breaking the stalemate. "A lot of our members, particularly in the North and Northeast, are getting a little concerned about not having done something."

Once enacted and signed into law, the bill 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 amounts of the payments vary by state. In Maryland, where about 145,900 workers were unemployed in January, the average weekly unemployment benefit check is $234.

The measure also provides for a second, automatic, 13-week extension of benefits in those states where the jobless rate exceeds 4 percent when the first extension runs out. Maryland's rate in January, the last month for which figures are available, was 5.1 percent.

But in defiance of Daschle, House GOP leaders refused to approve the jobless benefit extension alone. They also included business tax cuts that won widespread support from Democrats during months of negotiations on what Bush once hoped would be an $80 billion package to jump-start an economy then reeling from the Sept. 11 attacks.

An immediate 30 percent depreciation during each of the next three years for new investments made after Sept. 10, 2001, and before Sept. 11, 2004, was among the business breaks. This is to encourage purchases of capital equipment like computers and trucks.

Another break would allow businesses to deduct losses during last year and this year from taxes paid up to five years ago, which would effectively amount to a refund of some of those taxes.

The bill also provides $5 billion in help for businesses damaged by the attacks on the World Trade Center by creating a "Liberty Zone" in the lower Manhattan section of New York, where the World Trade Center was situated. Tax breaks would be available to businesses in the area for the next decade.

Added to the measure -- in a sure sign that it was expected to pass -- was a list of popular tax credits set to expire this year that would be extended for two years.

Some lawmakers have been saying for weeks that such economic stimulus measures are no longer necessary because the economy is showing signs of recovering.

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