- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 15, 2002

President Bush said yesterday that extending unemployment benefits for laid-off workers should be the "first order of business" when Congress reconvenes next month, adopting a stance Democrats have long supported to help the troubled economy.
When Congress adjourned for the year late last month, the Senate had passed a bipartisan bill to provide an extra 13 weeks of jobless benefits. The House passed a different version, providing an extra five weeks of benefits for workers in a few states with high unemployment rates.
Democrats blamed silence and inaction by the president for the failure of the two houses to reach a compromise.
In his weekly radio address yesterday, Mr. Bush said he wants the new Congress to send him a bill "extending unemployment benefits for about 750,000 Americans whose benefits will expire on Dec. 28.
"These Americans rely on their unemployment benefits to pay for the mortgage or rent, food and other critical bills. They need our assistance in these difficult times, and we cannot let them down," the president said.
Mr. Bush said the benefits should be retroactive, "so that people who lose their benefits now will be paid in full."
He made his comments eight days after the Labor Department announced the nation's unemployment rate was 6 percent in November, up from 5.7 percent in October. The new rate matched the highest rate this year and was the highest since 1994.
In his address, Mr. Bush did not indicate whether he preferred the bill passed by the Republican-controlled House, which would cost $900 million, or the more generous Senate version, which would cost $5 billion.
The Senate version was passed when Democrats controlled that chamber, but they lost their majority in the Nov. 5 elections. Republicans will control both the House and the Senate in the 108th session of Congress, which should make passage of the House-passed version easier.
Until yesterday, Mr. Bush had not made clear his position on further extending unemployment insurance payments. Congress had approved a 13-week extension in March. That extension is to run out for jobless workers who have exhausted their initial 26 weeks of unemployment aid.
White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, questioned by reporters traveling to Russia in late November, refused six times to clearly state Mr. Bush's position on extending benefits, Associated Press reported. AP said it was only after Congress adjourned that Mr. Fleischer said Mr. Bush had hoped the Senate and House could have agreed on extending the jobless payments.
In his address yesterday, Mr. Bush described various steps he had taken to get the economy back on track, including the shake-up of his economic team.
"There are many good [economic] signs. Inflation is firmly under control, which means food, clothing and other necessities are more affordable. Mortgage interest rates remain at historic lows, helping more Americans become homeowners. And growth has returned to the American economy," the president said.
On the down side, Mr. Bush said: "Many Americans have very little money left after paying taxes. Some struggle under a weight of debt that makes it difficult to save for retirement. Investor confidence needs to be strengthened in practical ways.
"And the nation's rate of unemployment is now 6 percent and significantly higher in some parts of the country. We will not rest until every person in America who wants to be working can find a job," he added.
Mr. Bush is expected to propose a plan early next year to reinvigorate the economy and stock market before his 2004 re-election campaign. Reports indicate the total cost of the package, which will include tax breaks for corporations and individuals, will be $300 billion.
The president said yesterday he has informed House and Senate leaders that extending unemployment benefits is the first action that the new Congress should take.
"They understand the need for early action," he said.
Rep. Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat, who delivered the Democratic response to Mr. Bush's radio address, said members of his party plan "to keep a watchful eye on the president's new economic team and are working on an agenda of economic growth, job creation and tax relief for middle-class Americans."
Mr. Menendez, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, complained that as many as 800,000 jobless workers "will not benefit from the president's compassionate conservatism this holiday season" because their unemployment benefits will expire "three days after Christmas."

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