- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 28, 2002

Nearly 800,000 people lose unemployment benefits today, and tens of thousands are due to join them in coming weeks, creating a situation expected to force quick action by President Bush and Congress early next month.

With unemployment at 6 percent and almost no jobs created in the economy in nearly two years, Mr. Bush has urged Congress to move quickly to restore benefits when it reconvenes Jan. 7 through 10.

Congressional leaders say they want to restore the benefits during that brief window, but no plan for doing so has emerged, and big differences remain between Democrats and Republicans over how long the benefits should last and who should receive them.

The unemployment program, which provides 13 weeks of extended benefits for long-term unemployed people who exhaust their regular benefits, expired today because of a standoff in the fall between the House and Senate over who should be covered. Both houses adjourned without resolving the issue.

"What we're really interested in now is that the congressional machine gets in high gear on Jan. 7 and get those benefits restored," said Kathleen Harrington, a Labor Department spokeswoman. "Congress is known to act swiftly when there's a will to do so."

The House is preparing to act the week of Jan. 7, and if the Senate follows suit, workers are likely to see little disruption in their benefits payments.

But should the legislation get bogged down in the Senate, where control is being handed from Democrats to Republicans, the next opportunity to pass legislation would not come until Jan. 27 and benefit checks could be cut off for as long as a month.

Although layoffs have let up recently, causing a decline in new claims for unemployment benefits in recent weeks, long-term joblessness remains at high levels.

From 750,000 to 800,000 workers in the extended unemployment program are losing benefits today, and 95,000 more jobless workers are due to exhaust their regular state benefits each week afterward.

In hopes of a quick resolution, Ms. Harrington said the department is urging state unemployment offices to keep processing unemployment claims so it can start sending out checks again as soon as Congress authorizes them.

Democrats and their allies, meanwhile, have been moving aggressively to pin the blame for the loss of benefits on Mr. Bush and his party.

"The House Republican leadership turned their backs on these families and refused to act, and the administration chose not to intervene before Congress adjourned," said Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota. "This inaction by Republicans was unconscionable then and it is even more so now."

Democratic lawmakers and the AFL-CIO arranged news conferences in New York yesterday, with several unemployed workers whose benefits are being cut off.

Jobless workers also reacted bitterly to the loss of benefits on a Monster.com message board.

"This makes me sick," said one editorial employee who said he has been out of work for months and has put out more than 400 resumes and had five face-to-face interviews without any results.

"I guess those people in Congress are pretty heartless and probably immune from the bad effects of unemployment," said another worker anonymously.

House leaders, for their part, blame Mr. Daschle and Senate Democrats for refusing to approve the five-week extension the House passed before adjourning in the fall, which was designed to give the new Republican-led Congress time to consider longer-term legislation.

While Democrats want to provide six more months of extended benefits and widen the pool of eligible workers, leading House Republicans want to pare back the program and provide benefits to workers only in states with unemployment above 5.5 percent.

About a million people have exhausted both regular and extended benefits. The Democratic proposal seeks to provide them with the more generous level of benefits workers received during the 1990-91 recession.

Republicans are resisting any expansion of the program, however, noting that in March Congress authorized an additional 13 weeks of benefits for workers in states where unemployment exceeds 6.5 percent.

House leaders argue that workers are not as bad off as they were in the 1990 recession because unemployment, while up substantially from 4 percent in 2000, is much lower than it was then.

House leaders also argue that what unemployed workers need is not more benefits but a job. They want to devote more money than Democrats to tax cuts that would stimulate economic growth and reward businesses for creating jobs.

A draft bill being circulated by the House Ways and Means Committee, for example, would combine the benefits extension with a one-year holiday for businesses that pay unemployment taxes to give companies an incentive to keep workers on the payroll and hire more.

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