House Fails To Extend Jobless Benefits

Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) expressed confidence that the bill will return for a simple-majority vote.
Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) expressed confidence that the bill will return for a simple-majority vote. (Chip Somodevilla - Getty Images)
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By Lori Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 12, 2008

The House yesterday narrowly failed to approve a proposal to give jobless workers an extra three months of unemployment benefits, but Democratic leaders said they would bring back the bill for a second vote today.

Despite a White House veto threat, 49 Republicans voted with a united Democratic caucus in favor of the measure, which would provide an extra 13 weeks of unemployment checks to all jobless workers and an extra 13 weeks on top of that to job seekers in high-unemployment states such as Michigan, California and Alaska.

Democrats rushed to bring the bill to a vote in the wake of the May jobless report, which showed the largest one-month jump in unemployment filings in 22 years. The national unemployment rate climbed to 5.5 percent from 5 percent, as the number of laid-off workers rose to 8.5 million. More than 18 percent of them -- or 1.6 million people -- had been out of work for 27 weeks or more, and therefore were likely to have exhausted the benefits that pay, on average, about $300 a week.

House leaders brought the bill to the floor, needing two-thirds of the vote for approval -- the same number that would be needed to override a presidential veto. They fell three votes short; the final vote was 279 to 144. But today's vote will require only a simple majority, Democrats said, and the measure is expected to pass easily.

"Given the strong bipartisan support expressed for this bill today on the House floor, we have every intention of bringing this legislation up for a vote tomorrow that simply requires a majority to prevail," said House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.).

It was unclear yesterday whether the measure would be received with equal enthusiasm in the Senate. Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said a free-standing bill would face "an uphill battle." Senate leaders instead plan to include the unemployment extension in a supplemental spending bill for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, reasoning that the combination would be more likely to win the president's signature.

House Democratic leaders yesterday hammered Republicans for opposing the bill, demonstrating the issue's value as a political tool in a presidential election year when voters say they are worried, above all, about the weak economy.

Republicans "are all for spending an additional 10 or 12 years in Iraq, but they're opposed to 13 additional weeks of benefits for unemployed people who, through no fault of their own, are without work," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), who chairs the House Democratic Caucus.

Republican opposition appeared to be softening, however. Presumptive GOP presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) said this week that he supported the measure because Americans were "hurting badly." In House debate, Republican lawmakers acknowledged the need to extend unemployment benefits but complained that the measure was flawed because it would remove a longstanding federal requirement that a worker be employed full time for at least 20 weeks before becoming eligible for extended benefits.

"This measure is well-intended. There's no question about it," said Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Tex.). But "this bill abandons the minimum work requirement that has in the past prevented the unscrupulous from gaming the system."

And while the White House yesterday issued a veto threat, calling the legislation "ill-targeted and costly," administration officials at the same time offered a compromise, saying they could support a proposal to offer a three-month extension of benefits in high-unemployment states. Those states are defined in the legislation as states where the unemployment rate exceeds 6 percent.

"The unemployment rate is clearly well below the rates that the U.S. government has historically justified extensions of unemployment benefits wholly paid for with federal tax dollars. And the bill would extend benefits even in states with unemployment rates as low as 2.6 percent," said White House spokesman Tony Fratto. "With scarce federal dollars, it's not fiscally responsible to extend benefits in states with very low unemployment rates."

According to congressional budget analysts, the measure would cost about $8.5 billion over the next 10 years and benefit about 3.2 million people. Democrats argued that limiting the extension to states with high unemployment would exclude dozens of cities with high unemployment rates -- and thousands of people who need help.

"There is not a congressional district in this country that isn't feeling the effects of this downturn. Every member has constituents who need help," said Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), who authored the bill with Phil English (R-Pa.). "This bill is a life boat to the American people to stay afloat during increasingly tough economic times."

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