Washington — The length of the war against Osama bin Laden and his Taliban supporters is anyone's guess, but we now know precisely how long the terrorist-induced truce in American politics lasted: exactly 43 days, from Sept. 11 until last Wednesday.
On Wednesday, the Republicans and Democrats in the House of Representatives were snapping at each other as if the World Trade Center and the Pentagon had never been attacked. Not over trivia, either, but over an issue that dramatizes the differences between the parties and could loom large in next year's election.
The House was debating a Republican-drafted stimulus bill, ostensibly designed to speed the recovery from the damage done to an already wobbly economy by the terrorist attacks and the more recent anthrax scare.
Some of the oratory was hyped, but there was no mistaking the genuine and mutual partisan dislike out on the House floor. When the bill passed by the narrowest of margins, 216-214, with only seven Republicans and three Democrats crossing party lines, everyone knew how big the vote might loom a year from now, when control of Congress will be at stake.
Media preoccupation with Afghanistan and anthrax has muted the attention that normally would be paid to the layoffs and hiring freezes being announced daily. The economic story is being treated as an afterthought except where people live. Outside Washington, it is second in concern only to the terrorist threat.
At latest count, 7 million Americans are without work, the highest number in four and a half years. Another 4.2 million 800,000 more than in August are working part-time because they cannot find the full-time jobs they want.
The first line of defense for many of the jobless is the unemployment insurance system. But that system was so weak even before this recession that fewer than two out of five unemployed workers collect benefits. The fight in the House pitted Democrats, who said the top priority should go to helping the jobless, against Republicans, who said the government should cut taxes even more in hopes of stimulating enough growth that business will start hiring again.
President Bush endorsed the Republican bill even though it was more of a budget-buster than he liked because it reflected his fundamental belief that tax cuts are almost always the best medicine. He is undaunted by the fact that the budget surplus he originally said should be shared with the taxpayers has vanished. He is unembarrassed by the fact that the recent $600-per-family tax rebate he said was "perfectly timed" to cure the economic blahs has disappeared without noticeable effect. When it comes to tax cuts, the man is nothing if not consistent.
His nod to the jobless was a complicated offer to extend unemployment benefits for people in three states hard hit on Sept. 11 New York, New Jersey and Virginia and perhaps other states if their jobless rates jump by 30 percent. The GOP bill also made $9 billion available that states could use, if they choose, to help people who lose work. But the biggest slice of the House GOP stimulus pie $70 billion would go to corporate tax cuts.
Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao tried to convince me that the help the administration was offering the unemployed was "a very robust package" that could be delivered quickly by governors because it is "extremely flexible, agile and nimble."
But, as Democrats in the House kept pointing out, there is nothing in the GOP plan that would actually require states to extend the usual 26-week limit on unemployment insurance or to improve the generally meager benefits, which average about $230 a week. In most states, action on either front would require approval by the legislatures. Few are meeting now, and all would face intense business lobbying against higher unemployment insurance rates.
The Democratic alternative is much more straightforward: Extend benefits an additional 13 weeks everywhere; boost the weekly payout 15 percent or $25, whichever is higher; make it easier for part-timers and low-wage workers to qualify. And do it all from the Federal Treasury, so it can begin at once.
The proposal drafted by Democratic Reps. Ben Cardin of Maryland and Sandy Levin of Michigan was sidetracked by House Republicans. But Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus of Montana is pushing a similar plan in the Democratic Senate.
You don't have to have a Ph.D. to know that the extra weekly $25 of benefits will go right into the economy for groceries or other necessities, without a day's delay. Maybe, in time, some of the Republicans' business tax breaks would produce additional jobs. But if you want to stimulate the economy right now, the Democrats are on the right track.
The Senate will have a chance to write a much better plan.
David Broder is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.