WASHINGTON – The House on Thursday overwhelmingly approved a plan to give jobless workers an extra three months of unemployment benefits, but the measure faces an uphill battle in the Senate.
With 49 Republicans joining a united Democratic caucus, the House voted 274 to 137 to approve the measure, which would provide an extra 13 weeks of unemployment checks to most jobless workers and 26 extra weeks to job seekers in high-unemployment locations such as Michigan, California, Alaska, Rhode Island and Washington, D.C.
The vote comes less than a week after the nation recorded the largest one-month jump in unemployment filings in more than 20 years. The jobless rate rose to 5.5 percent in May from 5 percent in April, as the number of laid-off workers climbed to 8.5 million people, including at least 1.6 million who are likely to have exhausted their benefits.
Under the measure approved Thursday, those people would be immediately eligible for three additional months of checks, which average a little less than $300 a week. The extension would be available to anyone who started receiving unemployment payments by March 2009.
The House attempted to pass the bill on Wednesday under a parliamentary procedure that required a two-thirds vote. Supporters fell three votes short. Thursday’s vote required only a majority.
The White House has threatened to veto the bill, saying it would waste federal money by extending benefits in states where the unemployment rate remains low. According to congressional budget analysts, the program would help 3.8 million people and cost about $13.6 billion over the next five years.
House Democrats said the measure would help not only individual workers, but also the entire sagging economy.
“According to the Congressional Budget Office, it is one of the most cost-effective and fast-acting ways to stimulate the economy because the money is spent quickly,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. Every $1 spent on unemployment benefits generates $1.64 in new economic demand, she said.
The measure moves to the Senate, where Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., vowed in a written statement to bring it quickly to the floor. “After five straight months of job losses in the Bush-McCain economy, I will soon ask consent that the Senate join the House in voting to extend unemployment insurance to help struggling families,” Reid said. “We cannot afford to wait while this problem only worsens. We have an obligation to act now.”
But shortly before the statement was released, Reid told reporters that the unemployment measure has little chance of winning Senate approval as a free-standing bill. Reid said he would seek an agreement to consider the measure with few or no amendments, but that he expects Republicans to object. If that is the case, Reid told reporters, “I’m not wasting” the Senate’s time.
Senate leaders reason that the unemployment extension would have a better chance of being signed by President Bush if it is attached to a bill that funds the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Currently, the House version of the war funding bill contains $165 billion for the wars, plus money for various domestic programs, including education benefits for veterans. If it comes to the Senate in that state, Reid said he will simply substitute a new version that includes the unemployment extension.
“If it’s not in when it gets over here, we’re going to put it in,” he said.
Reid’s statement suggests a continuing game of legislative ping-pong that is likely to last well into July. While Pelosi said Thursday she was “confident” of finishing the war spending bill before July 4, Reid said barely an hour later that the matter was not urgent because the Pentagon has enough money to cover the cost of the wars for another six weeks.
“They have enough money until the end of July, so we’re not really that panicked about it,” Reid said.