WASHINGTON – In an unusually brisk pace for Washington, President Bush signed a bill Wednesday to extend unemployment benefits for five months to nearly 2.5 million Americans just hours after the bill was sent to his desk for a signature.
"Right now it is my honor to sign this piece of legislation, which should bring some comfort to those of our fellow citizens who need extra help during the time in which they try to find a job," Bush said at the start of a meeting with Democratic and Republican congressional leaders.
Earlier in the day, the House passed the benefits package on a 416-4 vote. The Senate carried through the same legislation with unanimous support on Tuesday, its first day back in session.
Bush, who had urged Congress to act quickly, had until Thursday to sign the bill into law to avoid potential disruptions in benefits for some 750,000 Americans whose claims ran out on Dec. 28.
Republicans went into quick-action mode to pass the legislation after the president said early last month that extensions should be granted.
"I believe this is the right thing to do," said Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Calif., who earlier had favored last year's House-passed bill to provide 13 weeks of support only to workers in states with higher unemployment rates. "It is absolutely essential that we do it today rather than argue," he said.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., said the plan is "continuation of a very generous program."
Nonetheless, Democrats criticized House Republicans and Bush for failing to push the bill more forcefully before Congress adjourned last November.
"Frankly, it's the least they can do," said House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California at the time of the vote. "But we can do better."
The $7.2 billion bill restores federal benefits to more than 750,000 people who were cut off by Congress' failure to act before the break. Another 1.6 million people who exhaust all their state benefits would be eligible for federal aid until June 1.
The bill does not provide additional coverage for 1 million workers who have already used up 13 weeks of assistance provided to them last year on top of the 26 weeks of aid provided by the states. The money will be sent to the states to administer.
"This is an abomination, and Lord have mercy on all of us as we try to be compassionate for those in need," said Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee, D-Texas.
"Nothing is good enough for them," responded House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, to complaints by Democrats, whom he said would extend benefits indefinitely "so someone could stay out of work for the rest of their lives."
The president's signature comes as the November unemployment rate reached an eight-year high of 6 percent. December's unemployment rate is being released by the Labor Department on Friday.
Though that rate used to be considered full employment, lawmakers say that as long as workers are looking for jobs, they must do more to stimulate growth that produces jobs.
To that end, the president on Tuesday offered a 10-year, $674 billion stimulus package that accelerates marginal tax rate cuts, increases the child tax credit by $400 per child, wipes out dividend taxes paid to investors and provides bonuses to workers who find jobs in the next 13 weeks.
The White House said the package should benefit 92 million Americans and provide two-income families with an average $1,083 in breaks this year.
"In addition to unemployment assistance, we will work to deliver stronger economic growth so that the unemployed can get what they most want — a job," Thomas said of the package.
Democrats say the president is using the jobless benefits as a carrot to average workers while holding out a carat to wealthy Americans most likely to benefit from the stimulus package.
"If you're going to stab people, first you've got to give them a ham sandwich," said Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash.
The package that passed Congress and signed by the president represented a compromise crafted by Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., and Don Nickles, R-Okla., that had already passed the Senate once in November. Four House Republicans voted against the benefits extension.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.