With an eye to the November elections, the Democrat-controlled House yesterday passed a short-term public works jobs bill that Republicans angrily labeled a "billion-dollar ballot-box bailout."
The bill, which passed by a near-party-line vote of 223 to 169 but appears to have little chance in the Republican-controlled Senate, came as the Labor Department announced that the number of jobless workers filing first-time unemployment claims jumped sharply in the week ending Sept. 4.
Economists said the increase may lead to double-digit unemployment when the next official figures are announced in early October, the month before Election Day.
The nervousness of both parties over the state of the economy and its unpredictable effect on the election surfaced as House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) sharply attacked President Reagan on the "Today" show (NBC, WRC). "It's nice to have an effervescent smile and a friendly way and a warm handshake, but you've got to have more than ice water for blood that pours to the heart . . . .
"I don't think he has the concern for those that are on the bottom rung of the ladder."
Vice President Bush, responding later in a speech to the National Black Republican Committee, said, "I am concerned that Tip's vicious personal attack could well be the beginning of a low-road campaign by the Democrats this fall."
The jobs bill would appropriate about $1 billion to put an estimated 175,000 to 200,000 unemployed to work for six months, repairing streets, bridges and water systems.
The bill includes about $150 million for temporary or part-time jobs for low-income youths, aged 16 to 21.
The nation's seasonally adjusted unemployment rate was 9.8 percent in August, a post-World War II record high. About 11 million Americans are out of work.
The House rejected, 152 to 243, a substitute bill sponsored by Illinois Republican Lynn M. Martin that would have taken $1.5 billion from the synthetic fuels program and targeted it for jobs in areas where unemployment rates were higher than the national average.
Democrats claimed the substitute would have denied funds to New York, Miami, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and other needy cities. Republicans said the Democratic bill would make hardly a dent in the nation's unemployment, while it would spark inflation, revive corrupt practices that plagued the the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) program, and even take jobs away from the unionized construction workers who usually repair roads.
"This bill is a watermelon that is 95 percent water and filled with seeds," said Massachusetts Republican Silvio O. Conte. "In an election year, everyone wants to get on the bandwagon and show they're doing something for unemployment."
Democrats voted 191 to 29 for the bill. Republicans voted 141 to 32 against it.
The five-hour debate was dominated by some of the most acrimonious and partisan rhetoric the Congress has seen this year. O'Neill took on the Republican House leader, Robert H. Michel, with whom he has been known to share a friendly golf game, by pointing out that Michel's Peoria, Ill., district has a 16 percent unemployment rate.
O'Neill said his office had called Peoria's county engineer and had found there are "four unsafe bridges in your district . . . . You could create jobs in your own area" by voting for the Democratic bill, he told Michel, who faces a strong election opponent.
Hoots, groans and applause issued from both sides of the aisle as Michel, gesturing furiously, tried to defend himself and finally stalked out of the chamber declaring, "In Peoria, Reaganomics is going to play a lot better that Tiponomics." Later, Michel returned with a prepared text asserting the bill will "deceive, deflect and defang a lot of unsuspecting unemployed working Americans who want their congresman to do something about their plight and they don't care what. Its a great way to flim flam your way through the election."
Maryland Democrats Michael D. Barnes and Steny Hoyer voted against the substitute and in favor of the final bill. Virginia Republicans Stanford E. Parris and Frank R. Wolf voted in favor of the substitute and against the final bill.