Wary of playing Scrooge during tough economic times, Congress is defying President George W. Bush's veto threat and considering extending unemployment benefits to the nation's growing jobless masses.
The Senate this week is expected to take up legislation already passed by the House that would extend unemployment insurance for those whose benefits have run out. The Senate vote could occur as early as Thursday evening and would require support from 60 senators to pass.
Bush has threatened to veto the bill, calling it fiscally irresponsible.
The Senate vote comes during the last session of the 110th Congress, during which the economy took the worst turn since the Great Depression and lawmakers approved a $700 billion economic bailout package.
The news is getting worse. The outgoing Congress is squabbling this week over whether to spend $25 billion of the bailout money to rescue the auto industry.
Lawmakers have two days at most to take final action before they adjourn for the year.
On Friday, the government announced jobless figures that translate into a quarter of a million pink slips, just before the holidays.
The nation's ranks of unemployed zoomed past 10 million, the most in a quarter-century, and new job losses totaled 240,000 last month.
The jobless rate soared to a 14-year high of 6.5 percent, up from 6.1 percent just a month earlier. And there was more grim news from U.S. automakers: Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Corp., American giants struggling to survive, each reported big losses and figured to be announcing even more job cuts before long.
The bill before the Senate would provide seven additional weeks of coverage for those who have exhausted their unemployment benefits.
The measure also would provide 13 more weeks of unemployment benefits, beyond the 26 weeks of regular coverage, for workers in states with at least 6 percent unemployment rates.
The extension would to pay out about $6 billion in benefits, according to a summary by House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., and Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., who chairs a subcommittee of Rangel's panel.
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.
LAURIE KELLMAN, Associated Press
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