- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 16, 2008

House lawmakers are developing a bipartisan bill that expands unemployment benefits for millions of Americans, as jobless numbers increased last month to their highest levels in more than two years.

The Ways and Means Committee is expected today to clear a proposal calling for the extension of unemployment compensation by 13 weeks nationwide and for an additional 13 weeks in states with unemployment rates of 6 percent or higher. The current limit for compensation generally is 26 weeks, although some states offer additional time.

Without the legislation, up to 3.5 million workers soon will exhaust their unemployment benefits without finding work, said its co-sponsors, Reps. Jim McDermott, Washington Democrat, and Phil English, Pennsylvania Republican.

“Time is of the essence,” Mr. McDermott said when he introduced the measure last week. “The equivalent of a hurricane has struck the U.S. economy, and we must not repeat the mistakes of [Hurricane] Katrina.”

Mr. English said the legislation would “spur serious improvements to the safety net for unemployed workers.”

The unemployment rate last month rose to 5.1 percent, the highest since the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in September 2005, according to the Labor Department. About 232,000 jobs were lost nationwide during the first three months of this year, and about 1.3 million Americans have been unemployed for more than six months.

Employers slashed jobs for a third straight month in March, reflecting the slumping manufacturing and construction industries, as well as cost-cutting by retailers, temporary agencies and other businesses.

The bill would provide an estimated $12.7 billion in unemployment benefits and would be financed with federal unemployment trust funds, which the bill’s authors say have “more than enough” reserves to cover the cost.

The measure is far from ready to hit the House floor. Democratic leaders say the bill may be merged with a broader economic-stimulus package that could include more money for the federal food-stamp program, Medicaid, and road and highway improvements.

“It’s too early to talk about that,” said Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel of Illinois.

Democrats had wanted to include an unemployment-benefits provision in an economic-stimulus package that Congress passed in February that will send tax-rebate checks of up to $600 to most middle-class workers this spring. Republicans blocked the provision, accusing Democrats of trying to decorate the $170 billion bill “like a Christmas tree.”

House Democratic leaders have pushed for a second economic-stimulus package that would include measures cut from the initial legislation. The Bush administration and most Republicans oppose the plan, saying lawmakers should wait to see how the first package affects the economy.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, said that with the economy continuing to deteriorate, Congress should act now.

“If the economy continues to weaken, if you wait too late and it gets even worse, then any stimulus you pass may take a much longer period of time to bring us back out of what will by then be by all accounts, I suppose, a recession,” he said.

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