WASHINGTON – With weekly jobless claims benefits at a 16-year high, the White House said Thursday that President George W. Bush would quickly sign legislation pending in Congress to provide further unemployment benefits.
The Senate this week is expected to take up a bill, already passed by the House, that would extend unemployment insurance checks for up to 13 additional weeks for jobless people whose benefits have run out. The Senate vote could occur as early as Thursday evening and would require support from 60 senators to pass.
White House press secretary Dana Perino, discussing the worsening economic environment, said Bush is "always concerned" when people lose their jobs and is eager to help.
More than 1.2 million jobs have been lost so far this year and the civilian jobless rate is at a 14-year high of 6.5 percent of the labor force.
The White House earlier had threatened to veto a much broader, $61 billion stimulus bill that included aid to help states maintain Medicaid benefits and new spending for public works projects, in addition to the jobless benefit extension.
Bush's advisers had taken no position on the stand-alone jobless benefits bill costing about $6 billion, other than to say they were firmly opposed to Democratic efforts this week to combine it with a $25 billion bailout of the auto industry that would be drawn from the financial rescue package.
Republicans blocked Senate consideration of the unemployment aid bill in October, but that was before a nearly quarter million additional layoffs that month. The Senate vote occurs at a time when the economy is taking its worst beating in a quarter century.
"The recent financial and credit crisis has slowed the economy, and it's having an impact on job creation," Perino said. "The president is always concerned when anybody loses their job and wants to ensure that anybody who wants to work can find employment."
Perino's statement came after the Labor Department reported that claims for unemployment benefits jumped last week to the highest level since July 1992 when the U.S. economy was emerging from a recession. The report provided more evidence of a rapidly weakening job market that expected to get even worse next year.
The House bill would provide seven additional weeks of payments to those who have exhausted their benefits. Those in states where the unemployment rate is above 6 percent would be entitled to an additional 13 weeks above the 26 weeks of regular benefits. The benefit checks average about $300 a week nationwide.
Without the legislation, the authors say, 1.1 million people will have exhausted their unemployment insurance benefits by the end of the year.
Congress has enacted federally funded extensions seven times in the past 50 years during economic slumps — in 1958, 1961, 1972, 1975, 1982, 1991 and 2002.
The House also voted in June to extend unemployment benefits for three months, but that bill stalled in the face of opposition from Senate Republicans and a White House veto threat.
The Bush administration contends that past extensions occurred only when the unemployment rate was considerably higher and that it was fiscally irresponsible to provide extra benefits in states with low unemployment.
Unemployment insurance is a joint program between states and the federal government that is almost completely funded by employer taxes, either state or federal.