With the nation’s unemployment rate emerging as a Democratic campaign theme, the Republican-controlled House on Thursday overwhelmingly voted to extend, until the end of the year, a federal program to aid about 2.5 million jobless workers.
The measure, expected to come before the Senate today, would allow unemployed people who exhaust the typical 26 weeks of state benefits to qualify for 13 more weeks of federal aid.
Those in high-unemployment states -- Alaska, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Washington -- would be eligible for a total of 26 weeks of federal aid on top of their state benefits.
The bill’s enactment would allow Republicans to claim credit for helping the unemployed as Democrats increasingly point to the 6% jobless rate -- nearly 8.8 million unemployed Americans -- and to the ballooning federal budget deficit to pound at the Republican president and GOP-controlled Congress.
Republicans brought up the unemployment aid package on the same day as the Bush-backed $350-billion tax cut in order to rebut Democratic criticism that their economic relief plan primarily benefits the well-to-do.
By acting before the program expires at the end of next week, lawmakers avoided a repeat of what happened last year when Congress adjourned without extending the program, cutting off aid to 800,000 jobless people three days after Christmas. Congress retroactively restored the benefits in January.
Democrats took credit for pressuring Republicans to extend the benefits.
“We made the unemployment insurance extension simply too hot for the Republicans to handle,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco).
But Democrats pushed unsuccessfully for a larger expansion of the program.
They contended that the Republican plan fails to provide aid to more than 1 million unemployed people, including 150,000 in California, who have exhausted their state and federal benefits.
In the Senate, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) plans to push for approval of 13 weeks of additional federal aid for those long-term unemployed whose benefits have run out.
During House debate, Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) argued, “We’re not covering all the people who need to be helped.”
Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose) said that Republicans “don’t get it. It’s not a recession in Silicon Valley. It’s a depression.”
Santa Clara County’s unemployment rate was 8.3% in April, according to state officials.
Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.) responded: “Republicans are compassionate people, and we are taking care of those who have lost their jobs.” He said the Democrats’ solution to the struggling economy is “unlimited unemployment benefits.”
In the end, Democrats joined most Republicans in approving the measure, 409 to 19.
States with the highest unemployment rates as of March are Oregon, 7.6%; Washington, 7%; and Alaska, 6.8%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The unemployment rate was 6.7% in California, 6.5% in Los Angeles County and 3.8% in Orange County in April, according to the state Employment Development Department.
The measure is on top of $275 million approved last month to provide a 26-week extension of unemployment benefits to workers laid off by airlines, airports and airplane manufacturers.