WASHINGTON – President Bush ended his silence on extending unemployment insurance benefits Saturday and urged the new Congress to extend unemployment insurance benefits for more than 750,000 jobless workers soon after it convenes next month.
Extended federal aid for the jobless runs out Dec. 28, and the president said he favored making the extension renewal retroactive. Efforts to continue the benefits fell victim to partisan wrangling between Senate Democrats and House Republicans in late November's final days of the last congressional session.
Democratic leaders had urged Bush to ask House Republicans to pass the more generous Senate extension plan. The White House remained on the sidelines throughout.
White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, questioned by reporters traveling with Bush to Russia in late November, refused six times to clearly state the president's position on extending benefits.
Jobless workers have benefited from the 13-week extension in federal unemployment aid that Congress approved last March. That extension is to run out for people who have exhausted the 26 weeks of payments they typically receive through states.
The Republican-controlled House and Democratic-run Senate never resolved their substantial differences over how much longer the benefits should continue. Bush's change of course, announced in his weekly radio address, came after Republicans retook the Senate, which should make passage easier for the GOP model of jobless benefits.
The Democrats' $5 billion plan would have extended benefits an additional 13 weeks for people currently receiving them. The House's would provide five extra weeks of benefits for workers in a few states with high unemployment rates, at a cost of $900 million.
Bush indicated he was influenced to take his foot off the brake by November's unemployment rate, announced Thursday, which shot up to 6 percent in November.
"These Americans rely on their unemployment benefits to pay for the mortgage or rent, food and other critical bills," the president said. "They need our assistance in these difficult times, and we cannot let them down."
"When our legislators return to the Capitol (in January), I ask them to make the extension of unemployment benefits a first order of business," Bush said.
"Yahoo — that's great!" exclaimed Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., who is from the Pacific Northwest, where unemployment has been the nation's highest. "I definitely wish the president would have pushed the Congress on this earlier," she said. "We would have people having a much merrier Christmas."
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., agreed. "The administration's inaction on this issue during the last session of Congress cost millions of Americans assistance during the holiday season, money that would have gone right back into the economy when spending is at the highest level of the year," she said. "While I welcome the president's words, to really help the American people and the economy he must now urge the House Republican leadership to accept a meaningful bipartisan compromise."
Maurice Emsellem, director of public policy at the advocacy group National Employment Law Project, which focuses on lower-wage and unemployed workers, described Bush's action as woefully inadequate. "It offers absolutely nothing for the 1 million American workers who have long exhausted extra federal benefits but have yet to find a job in the persistently weak labor market," he said.
Emsellem urged passage of legislation "that not only extends the program deadline but offers additional weeks of benefits for the long-term unemployed. "
Bush advisers have been increasingly worried that a stumbling economy could dampen the president's re-election prospects. That concern was reflected last week as Bush replaced his economic team, substituting railroad executive John Snow for Paul O'Neill at the Treasury Department and making Steve Friedman his chief economic adviser.
Speaking for his party in the Democrats' prerecorded radio address, Rep. Robert Menendez of New Jersey blamed the delay in passing benefits on Bush and his fellow Republicans.
During Bush's two years in office, more than 2 million jobs have been lost in the private sector, unemployment has risen, retirement accounts have been battered and the stock market has plunged, said Menendez, newly elected chairman of the House Democratic Caucus.
"We Democrats want to put more money in the hands of working individuals and families, not more in the hands of those fortunate enough to only have to worry about how much their fortune has diminished," he said.