WASHINGTON — As Congress returns from a weeklong recess Monday, Republicans face renewed pressure to resolve a politically sensitive issue that has divided their ranks: legislation to extend unemployment benefits for millions of people who use up their regular benefits.
The long-stalled bill has taken on new urgency because, in the coming weeks, people who lost their jobs because of the economic effect of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and remain unemployed will begin to exhaust their 26 weeks of benefits.
Republicans and the Bush administration for months have advocated passing a benefit extension--but only as part of an economic stimulus package that includes tax cuts that Democrats oppose.
Now, with the broader stimulus measure stalemated, Republicans are contemplating whether to strip out the contentious tax cuts and simply pass a 13-week extension of unemployment benefits.
Such a move enjoys broad bipartisan support--similar extensions have been routinely approved during past recessions--and many Republicans fear that thwarting the measure could hurt their party politically.
Senate Republicans, including Minority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi, joined with Democrats earlier this month in approving the benefit extension. That action blindsided House Republicans, who that very day were passing another bill linking the unemployment benefits to tax cuts.
"That's the difference between a House Republican who wants to fight for Americans and a Senate Republican who doesn't," snapped House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) after learning of Lott's alliance with the Democrats.
The dispute is just one example of contention among congressional Republicans over a range of issues, even as President Bush enjoys sky-high public approval ratings and the party as a whole seems well positioned for November's congressional elections.
In recent weeks, congressional Republicans have split over campaign finance reform legislation, with a renegade group of lawmakers working with Democrats to put the bill on the cusp of clearing Congress. The campaign finance issue also has created tensions between the White House and House GOP leaders, who were frustrated by Bush's refusal to help them block the bill.
Coming fiscal debates also may roil the GOP, with conservatives insisting the party back a resolution to eliminate the deficit, while other Republicans question the wisdom of trying to balance the federal budget at a time of war and recession.
The question of how to handle legislation to help the unemployed is as much about tactics as it is about substance. But the stakes are high because many lawmakers believe that their reelection prospects this fall will hinge on the economy and how they manage it.
A key factor in how Congress responds in the coming weeks will be what kind of feedback they get from constituents. Some jobless people who have run out of benefits are clamoring for action.
"I get frustrated when politicians play with the people who need this by attaching their own agenda, when they should be addressing the immediate needs of the unemployed," said Jack Sunkes of Sylmar, who lost his job in publishing last year and has exhausted his regular unemployment benefits. "I believe if some measure isn't taken soon to help the unemployed, the voters will be looking for other candidates that will listen."
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal-leaning research group, estimates that 2 million unemployed workers will exhaust their benefits in the first half of this year alone--an average of 80,000 a week. The center's data show that, in California, about 153,000 exhausted their regular benefits from Sept. 11 to Dec. 31. The center estimates that an additional 303,000 Californians will run out of benefits before July.
Republicans have argued that the answer is not just providing more aid to people out of work but for Congress to pass tax cuts and other measures that would spur business to create jobs. "People don't want a welfare check; they want their job back," said House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).
But efforts to pass the broader stimulus bill backed by Bush collapsed in the Senate early this month. At that point, Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), with the support of Lott and other Republicans, whisked through the Senate a bill that would do nothing but allow 13 more weeks of unemployment benefits for anyone whose benefits ran out after Sept. 11.
GOP strategists initially indicated that the House would pass that bill and send it to Bush. But House Ways and Means Committee Chairman William M. Thomas (R-Bakersfield) derailed that strategy. He pushed for the House to pass the broader economic stimulus bill--for the third time since October, but with no greater hope that the Senate would go along.