With weekly jobless claims benefits at a 16-year high, the White House said Thursday that President George W. Bush would sign quickly legislation pending in Congress to provide further unemployment benefits.
The Senate is expected to take up this week a bill, already passed by the House of Representatives, that would extend unemployment insurance checks for up to 13 additional weeks for jobless people whose benefits have run out. The Senate vote could occur as early as Thursday evening and would require support from 60 senators to pass.
White House press secretary Dana Perino, discussing the worsening economic environment with reporters, said that Bush is "always concerned" when people lose their jobs and is eager to help.
More than 1.2 million jobs have been lost so far this year.
The White House earlier had threatened to veto a much broader, $61 billion stimulus bill that included aid to help states maintain Medicaid benefits and new spending for public works projects, in addition to the jobless benefit extension.
Bush's advisers had taken no position on the stand-alone jobless benefits bill costing about $6 billion, other than to say they were firmly opposed to Democratic efforts this week to combine it with a $25 billion bailout of the auto industry that would be drawn from the financial rescue package.
Republicans blocked Senate consideration of the unemployment aid bill in October, but that was before a nearly quarter million additional layoffs that month. The Senate vote occurs at a time when the economy is taking its worst beating in a quarter-century.
The Labor Department announced Thursday that new applications for jobless benefits last week totaled a seasonally adjusted 542,000. Last month, the unemployment rate jumped to a 14-year high of 6.5 percent, with 10.1 million people looking for work, an increase of 2.8 million over the past year.
The House bill would provide seven additional weeks of payments to those who have exhausted their benefits. Those in states where the unemployment rate is above 6 percent would be entitled to an additional 13 weeks above the 26 weeks of regular benefits. The benefit checks average about $300 a week nationwide.
Without the legislation, the authors say, 1.1 million people will have exhausted their unemployment insurance benefits by the end of the year.
Congress has enacted federally funded extensions seven times in the past 50 years during economic slumps — in 1958, 1961, 1972, 1975, 1982, 1991 and 2002.
The House also voted in June to extend unemployment benefits for three months, but that bill stalled in the face of opposition from Senate Republicans and a White House veto threat.
The Bush administration contends that past extensions occurred only when the unemployment rate was considerably higher, and it was fiscally irresponsible to provide extra benefits in states with low unemployment.
Unemployment insurance is a joint program between states and the federal government that is almost completely funded by employer taxes, either state or federal.