WASHINGTON -- Federal unemployment benefits that were cut off for 750,000 jobless workers last month could be the first issue the new Republican-controlled Congress tackles when it opens a new session today.
President Bush must sign a bill by Thursday extending federal benefits to avoid an extended disruption in payments, administration officials said.
Under that deadline, Republican leaders in the Senate and House reached an agreement Monday on a plan that would reinstate 13 weeks of extended federal benefits for more than 750,000 people who were cut off Dec. 28 because Congress last year failed to reach an agreement before adjourning. Democrats, however, want a more generous benefits package.
Senate GOP leaders were hopeful that a benefits extension could be considered today and, if passed, sent to the House for a vote Wednesday.
"To get something done by Thursday, we can't bounce it back and forth between the House and Senate," said Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, incoming chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.
Democrats and labor unions have loudly blamed the benefits cuts on Bush and Republicans. Their political strategy appeared successful: the GOP was making the issue a priority and supporting a larger extension than sought last year.
"This is an issue that we cannot dawdle on," said Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Penn., the No. 3 Senate Republican. "We've got to find bipartisan consensus and get it done quickly. And hopefully this is not an issue that politics will be played with. There are people who will be suffering if we do not act this week, and we should act."
Bush had remained on the sidelines of the debate until a few weeks ago, when in his weekly radio address he urged Congress to act quickly.
"I hope the Congress will extend the unemployment benefits for the American workers who don't have a job, soon, as quickly as possible," Bush said, speaking to reporters Monday.
Jobless workers who depleted their state unemployment benefits, typically 26 weeks, have benefited from the 13-week extension in federal unemployment aid that Congress approved last March as part of an economic stimulus package. But that extension ran out Dec. 28.
More than 750,000 jobless workers were in the midst of receiving those federal benefits when the program ended. More than 1 million already have exhausted all their benefits. Another 95,000 are exhausting their state benefits each week with no federal extension now to help them.
The House last year passed a plan that would have provided five extra weeks of benefits for workers in a few states with high unemployment rates, at a cost of $900 million. The Senate, led by Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., and Don Nickles, R-Okla., approved a $5 billion plan that would have extended benefits 13 weeks for people currently receiving them or who were newly eligible. But neither chamber could resolve their differences.
Republican senators will seek to pass the Clinton-Nickles plan Tuesday, with some minor changes. "That can be done quickly, can be done seamlessly," Grassley said, adding that the Bush administration supported the proposal, which would be sent to the House for consideration.
One change would be to extend the eligibility deadline from March to May. For instance, a worker who uses up his state unemployment benefits would still be eligible for the extra federal 13 weeks until May.
But Democrats intend to push for a broader bill that would expand coverage to the 1 million jobless workers who already have exhausted all benefits.
Clinton said she welcomed Republicans support of the plan. "The question now is how many people are we going to include? How many dollars are we going to put right back into our economy?" she said.
As part of House Democrats' economic stimulus plan, Reps. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., and Benjamin Cardin, D-Md., plan to introduce legislation Tuesday to increase the federal extension to 26 weeks for all workers, including those who already have run out of benefits. States with high unemployment would get another seven weeks.