Congress leaves jobless benefits hanging
WASHINGTON -- Congress adjourned for the year Friday without extending jobless benefits that will soon lapse for about 1 million people, but it did send President Bush the bill merging 22 agencies into a new Homeland Security Department.
By a voice vote of the few lawmakers around, the House completed action on the homeland bill by approving technical changes the Senate had made. That nailed down a victory for Bush, who plans to sign the measure Monday and nominate Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge to head the Cabinet-level agency.
Bush plans to sign a bill Tuesday creating a federal role in insuring property against destruction by terrorists. On Wednesday, he will sign legislation establishing an independent commission to investigate how the Sept. 11 attacks occurred and paving the way for big spending increases for intelligence agencies.
Democrats fleetingly threatened to delay passage of the homeland bill until next week. They said the 107th Congress should not leave town without helping laid-off workers facing the expiration of federal unemployment compensation starting Dec. 28.
"Congress is here insisting on playing Scrooge at Christmastime when we ought to be showing a little mercy," said Rep. David Obey, D-Wis.
The Republican-run House voted last week to keep paying the benefits until as late as Feb. 2, while the Democratic-led Senate approved a version extending them to at least March 29. Senators of both parties offered a scaled-down compromise this week to House GOP lawmakers, who refused to consider it.
House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, who is retiring, said the GOP-controlled House and Senate will consider the issue when the 108th Congress convenes in January. Armey spokesman Greg Crist said lawmakers may discuss providing extra benefits to make up for lost weeks of coverage.
Last March, Congress created a 13-week extension in federal jobless benefits for laid-off workers who have used up the maximum 26 weeks of coverage they generally receive from the states.
That 13-week extension starts expiring Dec. 28, when an estimated 820,000 people will lose coverage. Each week 95,000 more will follow.
Traveling with Bush to Russia, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer tried to distance the president from the issue, refusing six times to state Bush's position on extending benefits.
"The House and the Senate have to get something done in order for the president to have something to sign," Fleischer said.
Democrats said they didn't block approval of the homeland bill because Republicans could have called the House into session next week and passed it while still refusing to extend jobless coverage.
But many Democrats were reluctant to slow the homeland measure. Many of them attribute the party's Nov. 5 election losses to their earlier opposition to the bill, which would diminish the workplace rights of the new agency's 170,000 workers.
In addition, the lapsing of the benefits could provide Democrats with holiday fodder to accuse the GOP of treating working people unfairly.
"Once people are thrown out of their benefits, it will become a still more vivid issue," said Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich.
In California, Ridge said Bush's choice to lead the newly approved department is "probably the worst kept secret in town."
"I'm honored to serve the president in the present capacity and will be glad to serve the president wherever he thinks I can do him and the country the most good," said Ridge, who met with the Republican Governors Association.
The House initially approved the homeland measure on Nov. 13. But it was forced to take it up again because the Senate gave it a different bill number and made about 10 technical changes, such as different section numbers. The two chambers must approve the same bill for it to be sent to the president.
The Senate approved the legislation Tuesday and adjourned the next day.
The homeland security bill is H.R. 5005.