President Bush signed into law Wednesday a bill ensuring that nearly 800,000 people recently cut off from federal aid to the unemployed will continue to receive benefit checks without interruption and that 1.9 million others will qualify for relief in coming months.
Bush, congratulating the legislators, said that the first law of the 108th Congress "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."
The law's enactment, one day after Congress convened, allowed the president and his Republican congressional allies to claim credit for helping the unemployed, even as Democrats attacked the administration's overall economic plan as skewed to favor the rich.
House Democrats argued, fruitlessly, for a larger expansion of federal aid to people who have lost their jobs. But in the end, they joined with Republicans as the House overwhelmingly approved the bill.
The Senate had approved the bill unanimously Tuesday.
Republican leaders said the quick action on unemployment was only a start. They said that approval of Bush's economic plan, which was announced Tuesday and includes a speedup of scheduled income-tax-rate reductions and elimination of the tax on stock dividends, would be their top priority.
"We can only be satisfied when we take all available steps to improve job creation in this nation, so that all who want to find a job can find a job," said House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). "When I talk to my constituents who are having trouble finding a job, they are not satisfied drawing on unemployment insurance. They want to go to work."
The new law resolves a dispute at the end of the last Congress that forced expiration of the federal unemployment program on Dec. 28. When they returned for a lame-duck session in November, the House and the Senate were unable to agree on the length and size of a benefit extension, and Bush declined to intervene before the 107th Congress adjourned. He later lamented the impasse and called on Congress to break it.
Under the new law, nearly 800,000 jobless people cut off from aid Dec. 28 -- including an estimated 104,000 in California -- will now be put back on the relief rolls, with full retroactive benefits. In most states, they will receive a total of 13 weeks of federal aid, on top of the typical 26 weeks of state aid. Because of the quick congressional action, administration officials say the distribution of relief checks for this group will be uninterrupted.
The law will also allow an additional 1.9 million unemployed people who will exhaust their state benefits in coming months to qualify for the 13-week federal program. Those in three high-unemployment states -- Alaska, Oregon and Washington -- will be eligible for 26 weeks of federal aid. Jobless individuals can qualify for these benefits through the end of May, and the last checks are expected to be mailed in August.
The program is expected to cost about $7.2 billion, which will be drawn from the federal unemployment insurance fund.
Democrats had sought to raise the amount of federal aid to 26 weeks nationwide. They argued that a million jobless people who have run out of both state and federal relief in the last year need more help in a weak economy, and they derided Republicans for failing to give it to them.
"It's terrific that the self-proclaimed compassionate conservatives have found it within their hearts to extend a helping hand to jobless Americans," said House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.). "But of course they only have so much compassion to go around."
In other significant action Wednesday, the House approved legislation that would continue to keep most of the government running through Jan. 31 at funding levels equal to what was enacted for the last fiscal year. For the current fiscal year, which began on Oct. 1, only defense spending has been increased.
Republican leaders are seeking to wrap up other domestic spending legislation for fiscal 2003 -- under tight constraints imposed by the White House -- before the president gives his State of the Union speech later this month.