By Lori Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 23, 2010; A02
President Obama signed a six-month extension of emergency jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed on Thursday, restoring aid to nearly 3 million people whose checks have been cut off since the program expired in early June.
The White House signing ceremony came barely three hours after the House approved the $34 billion measure on a vote of 272 to 152. The Senate passed the measure Wednesday after a months-long stalemate.
"Americans who are fighting to find a good job and support their families will finally get the support they need to get back on their feet during these tough economic times," Obama said in a statement. He called on Congress to swiftly approve additional measures to create jobs and bolster the sluggish recovery, including a package of small-business incentives that faced a battery of GOP objections in the Senate late Thursday.
"Small businesses are the engine of job growth, and measures to cut their taxes and make lending available should not be held hostage to partisan tactics like those that unconscionably held up unemployment insurance," Obama said.
The jobless bill revives a program that provides up to 99 weeks of income support to those who have lost their jobs in the recession. Advocates for the unemployed said checks in some states are likely to go out quickly; in others, people can expect a delay of several weeks.
With unemployment at 9.5 percent, both parties agree that jobless benefits should be extended, but the legislation has been mired in an increasingly bitter election-year battle over whether the government should add to an already bloated national debt to bolster the economy. Republicans said no, arguing that the nation should pay for the extension with unexpended funds from last year's economic stimulus package.
"I haven't heard anybody say we shouldn't be extending unemployment benefits. The difference is one side wants to borrow 34 cents on the dollar, mainly from the Chinese, and send the bill to our children and our grandchildren," Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.) said during debate in the House on Thursday.
Democrats argued that emergency benefits have never been paid for -- even during the Reagan administration -- and accused Republicans of trying to undermine public faith in the Obama administration.
"They'll say it's because of the deficit. But in reality, they're simply trying to make this president fail at any cost," said Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), who accused the GOP of trying to "infect" voters with "fiscal fear."
"The Republican leadership in Congress has decided that the way to get the White House back is by denying unemployment benefits to people who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own and show them that this government doesn't work," he said.
The extension was first introduced in a nearly $200 billion package of economic measures sought by the Obama administration, including fresh aid to state governments and extended health insurance subsidies for the unemployed. Republicans blasted the spending plan, and conservative Democrats revolted, demanding that the package be scaled back.
Democratic leaders spent the next two months tossing various items overboard until nothing was left but the least controversial bit of spending: income support for unemployed workers. Democrats downsized even that program, dropping a $25-a-week bonus for all jobless workers that had been enacted under last year's stimulus package.
Even as the House approved the jobless bill, the Senate was wrestling with what may be the final item on the president's economic agenda for this year -- a package of small-business tax incentives.
Late Thursday, the Senate approved a provision that lies at the heart of the package -- a $30 billion fund to increase small-business lending. The measure passed 60-39, as Republicans George V. Voinovich (Ohio) and George S. LeMieux (Fla.) voted with the Democratic caucus in favor of the fund.