WASHINGTON – Federal unemployment benefits that were cut off for 750,000 jobless workers last month could be the first issue Congress tackles when it convenes for a new session Tuesday.
President Bush must sign a bill by Thursday extending federal benefits to avoid an extended disruption in payments, administration officials said.
Under that deadline, House Republicans were meeting Monday to finalize their plan to reinstate 13 weeks of extended federal benefits for more than 750,000 workers who were cut off Dec. 28 because Congress last year failed to reach an agreement before adjourning.
Senate leaders also were hopeful that a benefits extension could be considered Tuesday.
"To get something done by Thursday, we can't bounce it back and forth between the House and Senate," said Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.
Democrats and labor unions have loudly blamed the benefits cuts on Bush and Republicans, and plan to push for even more generous benefits from the GOP-controlled Congress. Bush, in a late show of support for an extension after remaining on the sidelines, has urged Congress to act quickly.
Jobless workers who depleted their state unemployment benefits, typically 26 weeks, have benefited from the 13-week extension in federal unemployment aid that Congress approved last March as part of an economic stimulus package. But that extension ran out Dec. 28.
More than 750,000 jobless workers were in the midst of receiving those federal benefits when the program ended. More than 1 million already have exhausted all their benefits. Another 95,000 are exhausting their state benefits each week with no federal extension now to help them.
One top House GOP aide said the unemployment package the House may take up Tuesday, which was still being worked on, might show movement toward more generous benefits that Democrats want with goal of enacting something, avoiding last year's stalemate.
The House last year passed a plan that would have provided five extra weeks of benefits for workers in a few states with high unemployment rates, at a cost of $900 million. The Senate, led by Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., and Don Nickles, R-Okla., approved a $5 billion plan that would have extended benefits 13 weeks for people currently receiving them or who were newly eligible. But neither chamber could resolve their differences.
In the Senate, Republicans could seek to take up the unemployment extension Tuesday with the intention of passing the Clinton-Nickles plan with minor changes, Grassley said.
"That can be done quickly, can be done seamlessly," he said. Grassley said the Bush administration supported the proposal.
But Democrats intend to push for a broader bill that would expand coverage to the 1 million jobless workers who already have exhausted all benefits, said Jim Manley, spokesman for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass. They also want to increase benefits by additional three months.
As part of House Democrats' economic stimulus plan, Reps. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., and Benjamin Cardin, D-Md., plan to introduce legislation Tuesday to increase the federal extension to 26 weeks for all workers, including those who already have run out of benefits. States with high unemployment would get another seven weeks.