With congressional negotiations at an impasse and time running out, nearly 1 million jobless workers will almost certainly lose their federal unemployment benefits during the Christmas season.
The House of Representatives has one last chance to extend the expiring unemployment compensation program today, when a few lawmakers convene to approve technical changes to the homeland security bill. But House GOP leaders said they don't plan to bring up the Senate's version of an unemployment insurance extension, and the White House is resisting Democratic entreaties to force the House to act.
That means about 830,000 people receiving federal benefits will be cut off on Dec. 28. Beginning the next day, another 95,000 jobless workers each week will exhaust their state unemployment benefits, with no temporary federal assistance to back them up, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priority, a liberal think tank.
"I don't even want to truly think about it. I have a 12-year old [daughter] to support," said Jo-Anne Hurlston, a Northeast Washington resident who lost her job as dean of career and student services at Washington's Marriott Hospitality Public Charter High School on June 11 and faces a benefits cutoff at the end of the year.
The congressional clash over unemployment compensation centers on obscure funding formulas, competing visions of federal spending and arcane issues with no direct connection to the unemployment program. But the consequences of congressional intransigence will be very real for people such as Hurlston, 47, who has mustered just two job interviews in the past five months and lives with her mother.
House Republicans and senators from both parties say they want to extend the benefits, but they disagree on the scope and the length of an extension. As a result, no one will receive an additional penny.
Last week, both houses of Congress approved two competing versions of an unemployment insurance extension. The Senate bill -- drafted by Sens. Don Nickles (R-Okla.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) -- would extend the temporary unemployment benefits until March 29. Current recipients would get a three-month reprieve. Those laid off during that time would receive their full 13-week allotments, even if those go beyond March 29.
The House took a more frugal approach. In its version, those receiving benefits on the Dec. 28 cutoff date who have not exhausted their full 13 weeks would continue to receive their benefits until Feb. 2. Laid-off workers in "high unemployment" states would receive a blanket extension until Feb. 2. But under the House's formula, only three states -- Washington, Oregon and Alaska -- would qualify.
With the end of the 107th Congress at hand, senators from both parties tried to reach a deal. A knowledgeable Republican Senate aide said GOP and Democratic leaders agreed on Tuesday to cut back the Senate's proposed extension to two months.
But House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), author of the House bill, balked. On Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) agreed to a monthlong extension, but Thomas rejected it.
Daschle and House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) wrote to President Bush yesterday, saying: "If you simply indicated your determination to enact this modest extension of unemployment insurance before the House adjourns, House Republicans would certainly drop their opposition."
But beyond expressing disappointment that the House and the Senate could not reach a compromise, White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan gave no indication that the president would intervene.
Thomas aides say the House approach is a more fiscally disciplined, targeted response to the country's economic problems. The House bill would cost the government $900 million. The Senate version would cost $4.9 billion.
The economy is recovering, they say, and the unemployment rate is not inordinately high. At 5.7 percent, the unemployment rate is considerably lower than it was in April 1994, when a Democratically controlled Congress allowed extended benefits to lapse after the previous recession. At that time, the jobless rate stood at 6.4 percent. Moreover, new claims for unemployment benefits dropped last week to the lowest level in four months, the Labor Department reported yesterday.
Democrats say employment statistics mask the severity of last year's recession and the weakness of the recovery. If the benefits end on Dec. 28, the temporary unemployment benefits program will have been in place for less than 10 months. In contrast, Congress maintained unemployment benefits for 30 months after the end of the 1991 recession. Benefits were extended for 34 months after the end of the 1982 recession.