WASHINGTON – The House on Thursday approved an extra three months of jobless benefits for all unemployed Americans, knowing the plan's chances are slight in the Senate and almost nonexistent at the White House.
After failing to get a veto-proof two-thirds margin Wednesday, Democrats said they pushed the legislation through to the Senate anyway, on a 274-137 vote, because Americans need help in a slumping economy.
The Labor Department reported Thursday that the number of people filing new claims for unemployment benefits last week increased by 25,000 from the week before. The unemployment rate in May jumped to 5.5 percent, up from 5 percent in April. It was the biggest one-month gain in 22 years.
"The American people are waiting to see if Congress is going to help them," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said.
But the White House already has threatened to veto the bill, and Senate Democrats have said they won't try and force their Republican colleagues to consider the House legislation.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he will try to bring up the House bill, but he won't force the issue if Senate Republicans object. "We're not wasting weeks" on it, he said. Instead, Reid said, Democrats might attach the jobless benefits extension to the Iraq war spending bill, a move also opposed by the White House.
The White House and Republicans said a bill targeting unemployment benefits only to states that have high unemployment would be more palatable to them. The Democrats' plan "is dead on arrival," House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio said. "The Senate's not going to take it up."
Republicans said the Democrats are simply trying to get an election-year advantage by making them choose between the extension of unemployment benefits -- with 8.5 million people reported unemployed in May -- and President Bush's position. Prospective GOP presidential candidate John McCain has also said he would support extending unemployment benefits.
"It's an unfortunate spectacle to see the leaders of this Congress manipulate the extension of unemployment benefits into a partisan weapon," said Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash.
Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., said there could be election consequences for Republicans who vote against the Democratic extension, especially with so many people worried about the economy and job losses. "I urge members to think about the election when they vote no," McDermott said.
Forty-nine Republicans voted with the Democrats on Wednesday and Thursday -- short of the two-thirds margin they would need to override a veto.
"I understand some of the concerns about granting this extension of benefits, but I believe strongly that those concerns are far outweighed by the needs of struggling American families," said Rep. Candice Miller, R-Mich., who voted with Democrats.
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 5.5 percent. Extending 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 extensions.
"It is fiscally irresponsible to provide extra benefits in states with low unemployment rates," the White House said.
Republicans also complained that the bill would eliminate the requirement that Americans work 20 weeks before getting the average $300-a-week unemployment benefit check. Democrats said the Labor Department reported that 10 percent of the unemployed would not get unemployment benefits if they did not delete that provision.
Congress has extended unemployment benefits during periods that turned out to be recessions: twice in the 1970s, again in the early 1980s and 1990s, and most recently from March 2002 through December 2003.
Unemployment insurance is a joint program between states and the federal 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 that qualify currently.
The extension would run through March, although unemployed workers who are already getting extra benefits before then would get their entire 13 weeks.
The Congressional Budget Office estimated that about 3.2 million Americans would collect $11.7 billion in extended unemployment benefits over the life of the extension.