WASHINGTON — President Bush on Friday night signed into law a $5.3-billion bill that extends jobless benefits for an estimated 3 million Americans and said some checks may be delivered by Thanksgiving.
At the same time, the Senate approved a second measure that would provide more generous payments in most states and sent it to the House for passage, which is expected early next week. That measure presumably also will be signed by Bush and will supersede the bill signed Friday.
The bill awaiting further action would provide 20 weeks of extra benefits for nine states and 13 weeks of additional payments for all the others. It also would assure that similar unemployment compensation would be available in all states for workers who exhausted their regular 26 weeks of benefits after March 1 but before the law was passed.
Workers in Alaska, Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, New Jersey, Rhode Island and West Virginia would be entitled to the 20 additional weeks of benefits. California and all other states would receive 13 more weeks.
In signing the initial bill, the President said in a statement: "I am deeply concerned about the unemployed and their families and recognize the importance of providing benefits to sustain jobless Americans while they are looking for work. My only regret is that the Congress did not earlier send me a bill that I could sign."
Bush signed the legislation after the Senate adopted it on a 91-2 vote and had it rushed to him at his Camp David, Md., retreat. The passage of the measure ends a four-month stalemate between Congress and the White House over the extended benefits.
The bill passed the House overwhelmingly on Thursday, but it became snagged in the Senate because of complaints that dozens of states were shortchanged in the allocation formula worked out by House negotiators with the Bush Administration.
As a result, the Senate on Friday approved a separate bill containing a new formula.
The Senate passed the substitute by voice vote, and it awaits House approval either Monday or Tuesday, with assurances that the President also would sign that legislation, according to Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.).
The Bush Administration supports the new agreement, Dole told the Senate, because it pays for itself and does not require new taxes.
The legislation has been tied up in a bitter political struggle between the White House and Congress that ended Thursday when House Democrats reached the original compromise with the Administration.
But the bill quickly bogged down when it reached the Senate as lawmakers from both parties realized that some of their states would fare far worse under the compromise than they would have under a previous bill vetoed by the President.
Prodded by Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) and several other senators, the Senate leadership worked out the substitute package.
It was attached to a House-passed bill granting most-favored-nation status to Hungary and Czechoslovakia, adopted by voice vote and sent back to the House for its approval.
Additional benefits were paid for in two ways, according to participants in the negotiations. By shortening the program by three weeks, a total of $285 million was saved and reallocated to provide expanded benefits. Another $95 million was taken from a surplus of revenues in the House bill.
The new Senate bill, however, kept a House-passed provision that if a state's economic situation deteriorates and its jobless rate exceeds 9%, it also would be able to pay 20 extra weeks of benefits.
During the debate over the House bill, more than a dozen senators attacked the House formula, claiming that it rewarded states represented by Democratic and Republican leaders in the House and Senate at the expense of smaller states.
"People went into a room, baked a cake, cut the cake and put it on their own plates," Conrad complained. "It isn't right, and it's not fair."
"The biggest turkey around at this holiday season is this bill," added Sen. John B. Breaux (D-La.).
After the new bill was approved, however, Conrad called it a significant victory despite the declaration by Senate leaders on Thursday night that the House bill must be accepted as it was without change.
Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D-Tex.), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and a key negotiator, said: "The secret to it was that we were finally able to get the attention of the Administration. . . . This could not have been delayed any longer."