- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 23, 2002

Congress sent the homeland security bill to President Bush yesterday after turning back a final obstruction in the House, when Democrats held the bill hostage trying to force Republicans to extend unemployment payments.
A nearly empty House chamber cleared final changes to the homeland security measure by voice vote, then officially adjourned Congress for the year. Mr. Bush will sign the homeland security bill Monday.
But Democrats criticized Congress for adjourning without extending unemployment payments for the nearly 1 million workers who are slated to lose their benefits before the 108th Congress convenes in January.
"The people who will be helped by unemployment compensation, that's an immediate crisis for them, whereas the homeland security bill, this is a reorganization of boxes that will begin to take place sometime next year," said Rep. David R. Obey of Wisconsin, the top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee.
A Department of Homeland Security, which will be created 60 days after the bill is signed, will oversee 170,000 employees and control nearly $40 billion in annual budget authority. It will coordinate information-sharing among federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, and will include the U.S. Coast Guard, Border Patrol and Secret Service.
The House passed the homeland security bill Nov. 13, and then most members left town to return to their districts. The Senate passed the bill Tuesday but also made a few technical changes.
The House convened yesterday to approve those changes, but with most members gone the only way to do that was through a voice vote, and a single objection could have delayed the process.
Mr. Obey threatened to object, hoping to force Republican leaders to extend unemployment benefits. In March, Congress and the president agreed on a 13-week extension to the usual 26 weeks of unemployment benefits available for laid-off workers. That extension expires for 830,000 workers Dec. 28 and 90,000 more every week thereafter.
But Mr. Obey withdrew his objection, convinced that blocking the homeland security bill for a week the time it would take to bring the full House back to approve the changes wouldn't be enough to win new unemployment benefits.
Democrats sought an extension of benefits at least through the beginning of the next Congress in January, when the issue could be considered again in full. Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat and the incoming minority whip, said the government extended benefits in the 1982 recession for 32 weeks and extended them for 30 weeks in 1991.
"Congress is here insisting on playing Scrooge at Christmas time when we ought to be showing a little mercy," Mr. Obey said.
But outgoing House Majority Leader Dick Armey, Texas Republican, said he could not allow for the passage of the unemployment compensation bill without first receiving the consent of all House members. Without that, he said, it was inappropriate to consider the bill in the pro forma session.
Mr. Armey said homeland security was the "only business that was cleared for consideration today."
Still, he said he believes Congress will address the issue early next year and do so in a way that compensation would be "uninterrupted."
The House had passed an extension of unemployment benefits, but senators rejected some add-ons in the bill and passed their own version.
That was the version that the two sides were debating yesterday.


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