WASHINGTON — Frustrated by President Bush's repeated rejection of legislation to extend jobless benefits for unemployed workers, Senate Democrats Thursday advanced a new plan that would allow Bush to choose whether to pay for such benefits by increased tax revenues or cutbacks in foreign aid.
The $5.5-billion measure--like the one Bush vetoed last month--would provide up to 20 weeks of extra unemployment compensation for an estimated 3 million people who exhaust their regular 26 weeks of benefits without finding a job.
It contains a novel triple option provision that would allow the President to choose between two methods of financing the additional payments or deciding to declare a budget emergency and waiving the pay-as-you-go-provision of the budget agreement.
"We're making an offer here he (the President) simply cannot refuse," said Sen. Jim Sasser (D-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Budget committee.
However, Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) dismissed what he termed a "cafeteria approach" and "government by multiple choice" and urged Senate Democratic leaders to start serious negotiations on a compromise measure.
And House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.) scornfully rejected the Senate Democrats' latest proposal, saying: "It appears to be nothing more than a Chinese menu, asking the President to choose one from Column A or one from Column B. We're here to legislate, not stir up a pot of chop suey for the American people."
Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.), chief author of the option to trim foreign aid outlays by $3.6 billion over the next five years, said his proposal would still allow spending of $81 billion for overseas assistance in that period.
"It's time to take care of our own," Mitchell said at a news conference.
Democrats on the House Ways and Means committee were reported to be split sharply over how to pay for the extension of unemployment benefits. Some favor Mitchell's plan but others prefer to speed up estimated income tax payments by those whose incomes rise by $30,000 or more from one year to the next.
Nearly everyone--Republicans and Democrats in both the House and Senate--supports another revenue-raising provision that would extend a program for collecting delinquent student loans by deducting the debt from income tax refunds of the borrowers.
Dole, although reserving judgment on the new plan put forward by Senate Democrats, said he hoped Congress could act by the end of next week on a bill acceptable to the President. He said that Bush had telephoned him from a NATO meeting in Rome to inquire about the prospects for the legislation.
"There's a growing consensus that we ought to work out a plan across party lines, a plan that pays for itself, and get the benefits flowing to people who need them," Dole said in a Senate speech.
Budget Director Richard G. Darman and Treasury Secretary Nicholas F. Brady were meeting with Republican members of the Senate Finance Committee and the House Ways and Means Committee, Dole said, in an attempt to develop a consensus for legislation. Darman met also with Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D-Tex.) on the issue but no progress was reported on a compromise.
Bush signed a bill last August but blocked payment of benefits by refusing to declare a budget emergency, as the legislation required. The President vetoed another bill last month on grounds that it did not include a way to pay for the additional benefits, and the Senate sustained his veto by a two-vote margin.