Deal Reached to Extend Aid for Jobless Workers

Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- Top House and Senate lawmakers agreed Monday on a bill to extend, for five months, a federal program to aid jobless workers that had lapsed late last month amid partisan finger-pointing, congressional aides said.

The agreement would allow workers who run out of the typical 26 weeks of state unemployment benefits at any time through May to qualify for 13 additional weeks of federal aid, aides said. Expected to cost about $7.2 billion, the legislation could win approval in the Senate as early as today and in the House by Wednesday.

Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) told reporters that lawmakers want to send an unemployment-benefits bill to President Bush's desk this week to ensure that qualified individuals will continue to receive checks without interruption. "There are people who will be suffering if we do not act this week, and we should act," he said.

On Dec. 28, a federal benefits program created last year in response to the ailing economy expired after the House and Senate failed to agree on an extension. Nearly 800,000 workers were affected, including more than 100,000 in California. Since that time, more than 90,000 additional workers each week have exhausted state benefits and received no federal help.

Bush declined to intervene before the 107th Congress adjourned in late November. But on Dec. 14, he called on the 108th Congress, which convenes today, to resume the program and apply it retroactively to anyone cut off before receiving 13 full weeks of federal aid. In a speech today outlining his economic plan, Bush is expected to renew his appeal for the unemployment-insurance legislation.

In reaching the deal, congressional aides said, House Republicans acquiesced to a longer and more costly extension of the program than they had previously supported. Last year, the GOP pushed through the House a five-week extension costing less than $1 billion.

The legislation goes even further than a bill proposed last year by Sens. Don Nickles (R-Okla.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.). That bill, which won Senate approval, called for a three-month extension at a cost of about $5 billion.

The proposal falls short, however, of what many congressional Democrats are demanding: doubling the period of eligibility for federal aid to 26 weeks nationwide. Under the new bill, only workers in certain states with high unemployment rates -- Alaska, Oregon and Washington -- would qualify for 26 weeks of federal aid.

By moving rapidly on unemployment, the Republican-led Congress would clear away an issue that has exposed the GOP to fierce Democratic criticism, as the national unemployment rate has risen to an eight-year high of 6%. GOP leaders hope the unemployment-extension bill will build some political capital that they will need to help muscle through a new round of tax cuts.

While Bush is expected to sign the legislation, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer declined Monday to spell out what specific provisions the administration was seeking. He also declined to respond to Democratic complaints that Republicans and the administration had dragged their feet.

"The president is concerned," Fleischer said. "He regrets very much that this was not able to get done last year. But you know, finger-pointing is not going to get anybody's unemployment extension carried out into law."


Times staff writer Richard Simon contributed to this report.

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