WASHINGTON – House Democrats came so close to a veto-proof margin for their proposal to give the unemployed an extra three months of benefits.
Taking another shot on the same measure, the goal for Thursday was to pass it by just a majority, not the two-thirds it would take to overcome a presidential veto. The idea is to speed the bill to the White House.
The legislation would extend the average $300-a-week benefit check by 13 weeks for all unemployed people who exhaust their regular 26 weeks of benefits. Jobseekers in high unemployment states — Alaska, California, Michigan and Rhode Island, for example — could get an extra 13 weeks on top of that.
House Democratic leaders on Wednesday brought up the bill under a procedure that required a two-thirds vote for approval. The final tally, 279-144, was three votes shy of the two-thirds margin.
"Our work is not done," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. She said the House would vote again, this time requiring only a majority, to "ensure that this critical legislation arrives at the president's desk as soon as possible."
The White House has threatened to veto the Democratic bill and said President Bush more likely would support extending benefits in states that have high unemployment rates.
The Bush administration said emergency steps such as broadening benefits for the whole country have been used only when the unemployment rate jumps considerably higher than the 5.5 percent reported for May. Extended benefits to all states regardless of unemployment rates means that states such South Dakota and Wyoming, which have 2.6 percent unemployment rates, would also get extended benefits.
"It is fiscally irresponsible to provide extra benefits in states with low unemployment rates," the White House said.
"Republicans want to extend unemployment benefits in a responsible way. We believe this bill was irresponsible," House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio said after the vote.
The bill would have passed Wednesday if it needed only a simple majority, but Democrats can now campaign on Republicans blocking an unemployment extension. Rep. Jerry Weller, R-Ill., called it "cynical election-year maneuvering."
Democrats criticized Republicans for voting against the bill.
"There is no better example after today's vote why we need a change in November," Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., the House's fourth-ranking Democrat.
Unemployment insurance is a joint program between states and the government that is almost completely funded by employer taxes, either state or federal. Only three states — Alaska, New Jersey and Pennsylvania — collect taxes from workers for their unemployment benefit programs.
The House legislation would extend unemployment benefits for an additional 13 weeks in all 50 states and the District of Columbia for workers who exhaust their regular 26 weeks of unemployment benefits.
States with an unemployment rate of 6 percent or more would get an additional 13 weeks of unemployment benefits. Michigan (6.9 percent), Alaska (6.7 percent), California (6.2 percent), Rhode Island (6.1 percent) and the District of Columbia (6.0 percent) are the only places currently that qualify.
The extension would run through March, although unemployed workers who are already getting extra benefits before then would get their entire 13 weeks.
In the Senate, Democrats planned to add the measure to a must-pass war spending bill. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., will keep all options open, but he "continues to believe the best way to pass this extension is by including it in the supplemental appropriations bill," spokesman Jim Manley said.