The 107th Congress adjourned for the year Friday without extending unemployment benefits for nearly 1 million jobless workers whose payments will be cut off during the Christmas season.
Wrapping up the session,, the Republican-led House approved legislation creating a Department of Homeland Security but turned back a Democratic move to force a vote on the unemployment issue.
Democrats cried foul when GOP leaders refused to allow a vote on a Senate-approved bill to extend the expiring benefits through the end of March . The Democrats for a time also threatened to hold up adjournment in hopes of pressuring Republicans to act. But they eventually relented, conceding they had little if any leverage.
House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.), who is retiring this year, said he has been assured the 108th Congress will extend the benefits after it convenes Jan. 7 and make up for any payments lost. But Rep. Sander M. Levin (D-Mich.) said this would be an "empty promise" for cash-strapped recipients over the holidays. "Congress is insisting on playing Scrooge at Christmas time," Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.) added.
The cutoff arises from the fact that a temporary benefit extension approved by Congress earlier this year -- providing 13 weeks of benefits for those who have exhausted their 26 weeks of basic coverage -- expires Dec. 28. About 830,000 people will be thrown off the unemployment rolls at that point, and an additional 95,000 who exhaust their state benefits each week will get no federal aid thereafter.
Both houses approved bills to extend the benefits, but the Senate's was more generous and costlier, and the two houses could not resolve their differences.
Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) blamed Bush and House Republicans for the impasse. "With a phone call to [House GOP leaders], President Bush could have insisted that House Republicans follow the Senate's lead and provide this much-needed help for these hard-hit workers," Daschle said.
News of the impending cutoff took the unemployed by surprise and left state employment officials baffled. A jobless Washington man said that when he called the local unemployment compensation office to ask the impact of Congress's inaction on his benefits, he received three different answers: His benefits were safe; his benefits would end Dec. 28; and the District government had no idea what would happen to his benefits.
In North Carolina, where unemployment hovers above 6 percent, Harry Payne, chairman of the state's employment security commission, said he was "very disappointed." "I can think of no issue more urgent for the lives of so many people in this country," Payne said. "It's Christmas. It's a time of thanksgiving, a time to help one another. One would've hoped they had taken this up and run with it."
Staff writer Jonathan Weisman contributed to this report.