WASHINGTON – The Republican-controlled House approved a 13-week extension of jobless benefits (search) Thursday night with the support of Democrats, who nonetheless complained that the measure denied extra help to a million long-term unemployed.
The vote was 409-19 on legislation that Republicans said would mean extra benefits for 2.4 million people who have lost their jobs since President Bush (search) took office. The Senate planned to act on it Friday.
Bush, in a statement, praised the House for "passing an unemployment insurance extension that will continue important additional assitance for American workers as our economy recovers."
With the nation's unemployment rate at 6 percent -- 2 percentage points higher than the last year of Bill Clinton (search)'s presidency -- Republicans conceded the need to help the jobless.
"We must ... give displaced workers the peace of mind in knowing they have a little time in finding a job," said Rep. Jennifer Dunn, R-Wash., the bill's sponsor.
Democrats said they had shamed Republicans into bringing the bill to the floor just before moving to legislation that would provide $330 billion in new tax cuts.
"You did absolutely the minimum you could do and keep a straight face and put out your press release that you did something for unemployment," said Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash.
The bill would extend the federal program to Dec. 31 at a cost of $6.5 billion.
Without congressional action, new applicants who exhausted their state benefits, generally 26 weeks, would get no federal help after May 31.
The bill would allow recipients in six states with high unemployment -- Alaska, Oregon, Washington, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania -- to get 26 weeks of federal aid.
Congress has acted twice on unemployment already -- but not without political battles. It passed the federal benefits program as part of an economic stimulus package last year and extended the program in January.
The House bill helps insulate Republicans from Democratic attacks claiming an agreement for a $350 billion tax cut package favored the rich at the expense of jobless Americans.
"Today the Republicans are deciding in favor of a plan that will do nothing to get the economy moving again," said Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. "It will do nothing to create jobs. It is reckless and fiscally irresponsible."
Republicans shot back that Democrats want to provide unemployment benefits indefinitely without worrying how to create jobs.
"I will admit my No. 1 economic priority is not to extend unemployment benefits," said Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif. "My No. 1 economic priority is to create jobs."
The nation's unemployment rate last month jumped to 6 percent, matching an eight-year high. The number of jobless workers surged to 8.8 million.
The legislative pace quickened Thursday as the Labor Department reported that new applications for state unemployment insurance last week rose to the highest level in two weeks. That surprised economists. New claims from laid-off workers have remained above the 400,000 mark associated with a sluggish job market for 14 straight weeks.
Democrats have lost repeated attempts in the last few weeks to extend benefits as part of other legislation. House leaders had been coy about whether they would consider an extension, finally agreeing to a separate bill Wednesday.
The Senate planned to vote on the bill Friday, meaning it can be quickly sent to the president for his signature. Congress adjourns Friday for a weeklong holiday recess.
"Things are indeed bleak out there," said Rep. Phil English, R-Pa., one of several moderate Republicans who pushed for action this week. "We are in a recession, even if many within the Washington Beltway don't fully recognize it."