Bush signs jobless aid bill

2.5 million will receive extended U.S. benefits

Measure passes overwhelmingly

Partisan squabble lingers over adequacy of help

January 09, 2003|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Acting swiftly, President Bush signed a bill yesterday to extend federal unemployment aid for up to 2.5 million Americans through May, after the new Republican Congress whisked the measure through during its first week.

Yesterday's action was the first achievement of the 108th Congress, and Republicans hailed it as one that would help smooth the road for Bush's new $674 billion tax-cut package.

But Democrats argued that the jobless measure did not go far enough and that it reflected the misplaced priorities of the Republicans' economic plans.

The House cleared the bill yesterday, a day after the Senate had, and within hours Bush signed it. His signature means that about 800,000 people - including 10,000 in Maryland - who have exhausted their state unemployment benefits and are collecting 13 weeks of federal aid will continue to receive those checks without interruption.

Congress failed last year to extend the federal unemployment benefits beyond Dec. 28. Those checks would have stopped arriving next week had Congress not acted.

Up to 1.7 million more people who are receiving state jobless benefits - usually offered for 26 weeks - can begin to receive the 13 weeks of federal aid between now and June 1. They include about 17,000 people in Maryland.

Maryland's jobless rate has hovered around 4 percent in recent months, but the number of Marylanders filing for initial benefits is on the rise. The maximum weekly unemployment benefit in Maryland is $280.

The measure passed both Republican-led chambers overwhelmingly - by a unanimous Senate and by a 416-4 House vote - but only after rancorous debate. Lawmakers in both parties said the early discord on a bill that almost everyone embraced in the end suggested an intensely partisan congressional session to come.

"It's terrific that the self-proclaimed compassionate conservatives have found it within their hearts to extend a helping hand to jobless Americans," said Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Southern Maryland Democrat. "But, of course, they only have so much compassion to go around."

He and other Democrats complained that the bill offers nothing to the roughly 1 million jobless Americans, including about 22,000 in Maryland, who have run out of both their state unemployment benefits and the 13 weeks of federal aid that Congress approved in March.

Congressional Democrats wanted to offer 26 weeks of federal aid to all the jobless.

Republicans countered that those people have already received considerable unemployment aid - in some cases an entire year's worth.

"The Democrats make it sound like we have not helped at all the unemployed, who we already have helped," said Rep. Jennifer Dunn, a Washington state Republican.

Republicans also contended that Congress did not have time to change the bill to cover more people because any delay in its passage would have cut off those now collecting federal unemployment benefits.

In a letter Monday to the new Senate majority leader, Bill Frist of Tennessee, Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao said the only way for states to continue paying the extended federal benefits "without disruption" was if Congress sent Bush the bill by today.

That is because when Congress first approved the federal aid in March, it contained a cut-off date of Dec. 28.

Because recipients file for benefits at the end of a week, today is the last day for states to "turn the jets back on" in time to send out checks for last week, said Tom Wendell, director of the Maryland Office of Unemployment Insurance.

Democrats countered that there was plenty of time to expand the bill to include more jobless Americans - but no willingness among Republicans to do so.

"`Oh, we would like to help them, because there's this compassionate conservativism, but we just can't,'" Rep. Charles B. Rangel, a New York Democrat, said sarcastically. "`Don't do this to these people.' Just say you don't want to do it because you don't believe in it."

The extension of unemployment aid that was signed into law eventually phases out. Until June 1, those who use up their state jobless benefits can collect additional federal aid for 13 more weeks, through Aug. 30.

Still, House and Senate Democrats railed this week against the Republican approach, especially on the heels of Bush's economic growth proposal, which contains deep tax cuts that critics say favor the wealthiest Americans.

"At the same time the president is advocating now a $600 billion tax cut, largely dedicated to those at the very top, they can't even pass benefits for people at the very bottom with no jobs," Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat, said Tuesday. "That is outrageous, that is wrong, and I think that that, more than anything else, will be the topic of conversation until we get this job done right."

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