Nearly 800,000 unemployed lose benefits

Saturday, December 28, 2002

WASHINGTON -- Already facing a sputtering economy and slow hiring, nearly 800,000 unemployed Americans face a new woe today when their federal unemployment benefits end.

Democrats and labor unions, sensing political opportunity, are blaming the cuts on President Bush and Republicans in Congress. Bush, in a late show of support for an extension, urged Congress last week to get it done when lawmakers return to work next month.

"Regrettably, the House Republican leadership turned their backs on these families and refused to act, and the administration chose not to intervene before Congress adjourned," Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle said Friday.

"This inaction by Republicans was unconscionable then and it is even more so now."

Congress left for the year without extending the federal benefits, meaning that 750,000 to 800,000 unemployed workers will get cut off today. Another 95,000 jobless workers will exhaust their state benefits each week afterward. Already, 1 million people have exhausted all of their benefits.

Bush has sent a "very strong message" to Congress to extend the benefits and make them retroactive, said Labor Department spokeswoman Kathleen Harrington. The agency is confident that benefits will be extended, she said, and has been relaying that to many governors who are calling with questions.

Some states will continue to process claims for benefits and at least one state, Idaho, will keep paying them with the expectation that funding will be available early next year, she said.

Democratic lawmakers rallied Friday in New York to put pressure on their Republican colleagues. Also, the AFL-CIO arranged a news conference in New York City featuring several unemployed workers whose benefits are being cut off.

Scott Carmichael, 45, of Rowlett, Texas, was one of them. He was laid off in June from his job at WorldCom, where he had worked for 17 years.

Bills to pay

Carmichael's state benefits are running out and he had counted on an extra 13 weeks of federal benefits that he now won't get because of Congress' inaction on the extension. The biweekly check of $574 helped him and his wife Laurie pay the mortgage and health care costs for their two children, ages 1 and 3.

Mrs. Carmichael is now considering returning to work, possibly at night, so she and her husband can alternate caring for their children.

"It's really an act of discrimination," she said, expressing anger at Congress. "They give themselves a raise before they leave and they leave all of us Americans high and dry."

Congress authorized a 3.1 percent pay raise for themselves to $154,700 next year. Lawmakers' salaries have risen $18,000 since 1999.

In the waning days of the last Congress, the Democrat-controlled Senate approved a $5 billion plan to extend benefits an additional 13 weeks for people now receiving them or who were newly eligible.

The House passed a more modest $900 million plan of five extra weeks for workers in a few states with high unemployment rates. The White House stayed on the sidelines while the House and Senate failed to resolve their differences.

But Bush last week ended his silence and said in his radio address that extending benefits should be the "first order of business" for the new Congress. But he failed to say which plan he supported, who should be covered and for how long.

"I only wish that he could have made that statement several weeks earlier, in time for the holidays," Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., said at the news conference. She will deliver the Democrats' weekly radio address Saturday on the loss of unemployment benefits.

GOP leaders contended the government could not afford the Senate plan's $5 billion price tag. They also said the economy was improving. The nation's unemployment rate climbed to 6.0 percent last month. In recent recessions, the rate was much higher -- 10.8 percent in 1983 and 7.8 percent in 1992.

Supporters of an extension argue that it would boost the economy by giving money to the people who need it most.

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