Nation/World

House refuses to extend unemployment benefits

WASHINGTON – The House on Wednesday narrowly defeated a Democratic attempt to give unemployed Americans an extra three months of jobless benefits after the White House threatened to veto the bill. But Democratic leaders said they will bring the bill back for a second vote today.

The bill would have extended the average $300-a-week benefit check by 13 weeks for all unemployed Americans. Job seekers in high unemployment states like Alaska, California, Michigan and Rhode Island would have been able to get an extra 13 weeks on top of that.

House Democratic leaders brought up the bill under a procedure that required a two-thirds vote for approval. The final vote was 279-144, just three votes shy of the two-thirds margin, the same as needed to overcome a presidential veto.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said the vote today will only need a majority for passage. “We’re not going to let this sink,” Hoyer said.

Majority Democrats said the legislation was needed because of the tough economy and rising unemployment rate. The number of unemployed Americans rose to 8.5 million in May. The jobless rate jumped to 5.5 percent in May from 5 percent in April, the biggest monthly rise since 1986.

“Republicans want to extend unemployment benefits in a responsible way. We believe this bill was irresponsible,” Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio said after the vote. “There’s a way to do this in a bipartisan way and extend unemployment benefits in those areas where it’s needed.”

Republicans also accused House Democrats of playing political games by requiring a two-thirds majority for passage. The bill would have passed if it needed only a simple majority, but Democrats can now campaign on Republicans blocking an unemployment extension. Rep. Jerry Weller, R-Ill., called it “cynical election-year maneuvering.”

Democrats, for their part, criticized Republicans for voting against the bill.

“There is no better example after today’s vote why we need a change in November,” Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., the House’s fourth-ranking Democrat, said after the vote.

The White House threatened to veto the bill only hours before the vote. The Bush administration said emergency steps like extending unemployment benefits have historically been taken only when the unemployment rate jumps considerably higher than the 5.5 percent reported for May.

The Bush administration also complained that the bill gives extended benefits to all states regardless of their unemployment rates. For example, South Dakota and Wyoming reported unemployment rates of 2.6 percent. “It is fiscally irresponsible to provide extra benefits in states with low unemployment rates,” the White House statement said.

White House officials said they could support a bill that only offers the 13-week extension to high-unemployment states. But Democrats argued that the 8.5 million already unemployed should not have to wait for things to get worse before the federal government helps them.



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