WASHINGTON – Last-minute efforts to extend an expiring unemployment compensation program collapsed in Congress on Wednesday, confronting hundreds of thousands of jobless workers with the loss of benefits during the Christmas season.
Senate Republicans and Democrats alike blamed the House GOP for the impasse, and Majority Leader Tom Daschle urged President Bush to press the leadership to reconsider. "I have to say I think it's a story right out of Charles Dickens,'' said Daschle, D-S.D. "Ebenezer Scrooge had a last-minute conversion. I would hope that our colleagues in the House would do so.''
The House is scheduled to meet on Friday to give final approval to legislation creating a Department of Homeland Security. But no debate is planned and no other business is expected in a session likely to last only a few minutes.
The federal government offers 13 weeks of benefits to unemployed workers who have exhausted their 26 weeks of state benefits. That program expires on Dec. 28, and without congressional action, an estimated 820,000 workers will lose their federal benefits.
The Senate and House passed separate legislation providing for extensions last week, with the House acting hours before lawmakers returned home for the balance of the year. But the measure passed included a provision related to Medicare payments to doctors that drew objections in the Senate.
As a result, Senate Democratic and Republican leaders sought a new measure in hopes of winning final approval in the House. Those efforts ran into objections from Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Calif., the chairman of the House ways and Means Committee, according to several congressional sources who spoke on condition of anonymity.
These sources said Sen. Don Nickles, R-Okla., the GOP whip, had talked with Thomas by telephone during the day to propose a five-week extension of the current program, but Thomas spurned the offer and said the Senate should pass the House measure instead. Thomas' office did not respond to a call for comment.