Plans by the House Democratic leadership to rush through a new version of a bill to extend jobless benefits stalled Friday when the proposed legislation ran into a strong bipartisan backlash from members of the House Ways and Means Committee.
As a result, congressional approval of extra payments for 3 million workers who have exhausted their regular 26 weeks of unemployment compensation may be delayed again despite President Bush’s recent support for a compromise measure.
The impasse caused Democratic leaders to cancel a news conference at which they apparently had planned to applaud the expected committee approval of a bill to extend jobless benefits by up to 20 weeks.
But rank-and-file Democrats joined Republicans on the Ways and Means panel to raise sharp questions about a new financing plan advocated by Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D-Tex.), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. His proposal would raise $3.2 billion over the next five years by accelerating payments of estimated taxes by persons with annual incomes of $50,000 or more.
Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) complained about the Democratic proposal but said the Administration’s objections were primarily technical and could be overcome in short order.
“The seeds are there for agreement, and I would hope we can do it early next week,” Dole told the Senate.
Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.), chairman of the Ways and Means panel, indicated that he would try again Monday to come up with a formula that would satisfy his committee and yet avoid a second Bush veto.
Richard G. Darman, director of the Office of Management and Budget, said his pleas for a postponement of committee action had been brushed aside earlier because of Democratic leadership demands for action Friday, when government figures showed that unemployment had risen to 6.8% in October.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle said the Bentsen plan to pay for increased benefits could unfairly penalize taxpayers who might not be able to estimate their future income accurately enough to properly calculate quarterly tax payments to the Treasury.
A Treasury official at the committee session was unable to say who would be affected by the Bentsen proposal, which would apply only to persons whose incomes increase by at least $30,000 in a single year.
Panel members questioned how it might affect farmers, small business owners and others who may not know exactly how much income they would have before they had to make tax payments on their estimated earnings.
Rostenkowski, who clearly had expected swift approval of the Bentsen financing mechanism to replace an increase in employers’ unemployment insurance taxes contained in a bill approved by the committee last week, appeared to be caught off guard by the hostile reaction.
“It’s evident there’s not going to be a consensus here,” the chairman said after hearing strong protests from Democrats Sam Gibbons of Florida, Marty Russo of Illinois and Frank J. Guarini of New Jersey as well as from Rep. Bill Archer of Texas, ranking Republican on the panel.
In warning his colleagues against the Bentsen plan, Archer said: “You’ll catch grief for it--I guarantee it’s coming . . . . You don’t know for sure what your tax liability is until the end of the year.”