Waco, Tex. President Bush and the opposition Democrats each vowed Saturday to renew unemployment benefits as nearly 800,000 jobless Americans were cut off from federal assistance.
The cutoff Saturday came because Congress failed to reconcile differences between a Democratic plan for a $5 billion extension of benefits and a Republican plan for a $900 million extension. Bush declined to take a position on an extension of benefits until two weeks ago, when it was announced that November's unemployment rate had reached 6 percent, the highest in more than eight years.
"One of my first priorities for the new Congress will be an extension of unemployment benefits for Americans who need them," Bush said Saturday in his weekly radio address.
The pledge was one of several Bush made in outlining his agenda for 2003. He also called for legislation to stimulate job growth, disarm Iraq, add a prescription-drug benefit to Medicare and curb medical malpractice lawsuits.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., delivered the Democrats' radio address and blamed Republicans for the failure to extend unemployment benefits.
"In the recession of the early 1990s, we increased benefits five times," she said. "Today, our unemployment rate has soared to 6 percent, and Congress and the president have extended benefits only once -- and once is not enough."
States typically provide 26 weeks of jobless assistance. Congress in March provided a 13-week extension of payments; payments are routinely renewed by lawmakers in difficult economic times. But Congress's failure to pass a new extension before it adjourned means that between 750,000 and 800,000 jobless workers lost benefits Saturday. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal research group, an additional 95,000 unemployed Americans will lose benefits each week.
Clinton, with Sen. Don Nickles, R-Okla., led the Senate effort to pass legislation that would have extended federal payments to those receiving them and provided 13 weeks of assistance for those yet to lose state benefits. House Democrats continue to push a similar plan.
House Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas, R-Calif., proposes allowing those whose 13-week extended benefits were cut off to receive their remaining payments. Additional payments would go only to people in 16 states where unemployment levels exceed 5.5 percent. Another Republican plan would extend benefits through June 1 and further for those living in high-unemployment areas.
Bush, in announcing his support for an extension two weeks ago, said he would support making the extension retroactive, but he did not mention other specifics.