WASHINGTON — When Democrats in Congress pitched the idea of extending unemployment benefits for thousands of Americans this week, they found enough support among Republicans, including presumptive GOP presidential nominee, to hint at a bipartisan solution.
Instead, the issue became dominated by politics, and it's unlikely that the benefits extension will become law — particularly since President Bush is threatening to veto the bill as fiscally irresponsible and House Democrats are reluctant to compromise because they see an ideal weapon to use on the campaign trail.
The House bill, passed 274-137 on Thursday, would extend the current benefit, now about $300 a week, by 13 weeks to anyone who has exhausted 26 weeks of benefits.
In states with unemployment rates over 6 percent — which in April included Michigan, California, Alaska, Rhode Island and the District of Columbia — an additional 13 weeks would be available.
Some out-of-work Americans are aghast by the politicking, including Bush's veto threat.
"What is he thinking? Has he lost touch with the American people and what they need? Apparently he hasn't gone out and bought food and gas recently," said Gene Arlinghaus, a 54-year-old laid-off construction worker from Edgewood, Ky.
Arlinghaus, whose jobless benefits expire in just over a week, has been unemployed since he was laid off in January. He's one of more than a million workers who would be immediately eligible for the extended benefits under the proposal.
So is Ginny Hoover, a single mother from Richmond, Va. Hoover lost her job as an administrative assistant at a pharmaceutical company in November. After filling out more than 100 job applications, she's only been invited for three interviews.
Her jobless benefits expired at the end of May and she's down to getting by on her personal savings. With two sons in the military, Hoover said she voted twice for President Bush but now feels duped.
"I feel like such a fool," she said Thursday after noting that most of the opposition to the bill came from House Republicans — including her congressman, Rep. Eric Cantor, who voted against the measure.
In fact, though, House Republicans rallied around legislation that is not much different from the Democratic proposal. It would also provide 13 weeks of extra benefits, but only to states with an unemployment rate of more than 5 percent, or whose rate has gone up at least 20 percent compared to last year. Eighteen states had rates above 5 percent in April.
States with rates above 6 percent would get up to 26 weeks of extra benefits under the GOP version, just as Democrats would provide.
One Republican wrinkle: Their bill would offer people who returned to work without using all benefits an extra week of aid.
That would mean an average of $290 per worker, the Republicans figured; House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, called it "a useful sum in the midst of record-high gasoline prices under the Democratic majority in Congress."
Democrats say the GOP plan is inadequate and pledged to criticize Republicans about it throughout the election season. They bemoaned May's 5.5 percent unemployment rate, up one-half of 1 percent from April, the biggest monthly jump in 22 years.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Thursday previewed the Democrats' campaign argument if the effort to extend benefits fails.
"We could've helped 3.8 million Americans who are out of work, in large measure because of the disastrous economic policies of the Bush administration," she protested. "And yet the Republicans said no."
That's hyperbole, Republicans shot back.
"We of course, on our side of the aisle, want to extend unemployment benefits for those who need help," said Rep. Jerry Weller of Illinois, the top Republican on the House income security subcommittee. Republicans just don't want to provide the extra benefits to unemployed people in states where the job market remains strong.
Arlinghaus, who has gone through a $20,000 IRA and taken $5,000 from his 401K retirement fund to help pay bills, said he's struggling to pay his mortgage and health insurance since he lost his job. Hoover has no health insurance at all.
She recently broke down in tears after she came across her 12-year-old daughter's journal while cleaning. "She wrote, 'I think my mom and I are broke' and that really broke my heart. I try to go out of my way not to let her know what's going on, but apparently she's picking up on it," Hoover said.
Arlinghaus, who had never been laid off in his life, said his wife paces the floor every evening as their economic uncertainty mounts. As he watched Wednesday's House vote on television, he was taken aback by how precarious his once-stable life had become.
"It's pretty bad when you've got to sit here and watch C-SPAN to see how your life's going to turn out," he said.
McClatchy Newspapers 2008