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Bush, Congress Spar Over Issue of Benefits

EVEN as storm clouds gather again over Iraq, the political debate in Washington has turned decidedly domestic.As expected, the House of Representatives has revived the fight with President Bush over an extension of unemployment benefits for the 2 million Americans who have exhausted them. On Tuesday, the House voted 283 to 125 - 11 votes more than the two-thirds necessary to override a possible presidential veto - to prolong the benefits. On Wednesday, Bush answered with his own bit of domestic politicking, kicking off a three-day Western trip to Arizona, Utah, Oregon, and California. Democrats have accused Bush of ignoring domestic affairs while he deals with international crises such as Iraq and the Soviet Union. His Western tour began with a speech at the Grand Canyon to promote his environmental policy and view the signing of an agreement to cut emissions from a power plant near the canyon. Meanwhile, back in Washington, Senate Democrats and Republicans were announcing a compromise on the Family and Medical Leave Act, which would allow employees up 12 weeks of unpaid leave for family emergencies. Later that day, Bush announced from Salt Lake City $25 million in federal grants for "Healthy Start" programs in a number of cities to fund health care for infants and pregnant women. "It's badminton with domestic issues, and it will only increase between now and election time," says Prof. James Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at the American University. But this is not to say, Professor Thurber continues, that these acts are purely political. "Democrats and Republicans do genuinely care about the unemployed," he says.

Unemployment benefits The Senate was expected to take up the issue of unemployment benefits yesterday, but in a bill that differs from the House version in key aspects. In the interest of speed, Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D) of Texas, chairman of the finance committee, decided to introduce the same bill Congress passed before its August recess - and which Bush failed to enact - even though it contains the "out" that allowed Bush to sign the bill but not make the necessary funds available. That bill, to be enacted, required the president both to sign it and to declare an "emergency" under last year's budget agreement, freeing up more than $5 billion in jobless benefits without raising the money to cover the cost. Bush took the contradictory approach of signing the bill, citing sympathy for the unemployed, but not declaring the emergency, saying it would endanger economic recovery. Bush would have to veto the new House version to prevent it from taking effect. If it comes to that, Democrats hope to make political hay out of Bush's apparent lack of sympathy for the unemployed in the coming election campaign - an issue constituents gave congressmen an earful about during the August recess. "The Democrats would love to use this as a campaign issue that may hurt the president," says Thurber. "It makes for good campaign rhetoric when the president is vetoing money for people who are suffering." Democrats say that almost 300,000 more American workers lost their jobs in the last 1 1/2 months. Unemployment held at 6.8 percent, or 8.5 million people, in August. Normally, laid-off workers get 26 weeks of unemployment compensation. The bill would provide between five and 20 additional weeks of benefits.

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Permanent benefits The new House version would make the additional benefits a permanent feature in the unemployment compensation system, a change that would cost the federal government $6.5 billion over the next five years. Opponents complain that such additional government expenditures not covered by any additional revenues violate the budget accord struck last October between Congress and the White House, pushing the budget deficit close to $400 billion. The version the Senate was expected to take up would not make the extended benefits a permanent provision. When the Senate passes its version as expected, both houses will iron out the differences in a conference. A possible scenario, say Capitol Hill observers, is for the Senate to drop the requirement that Bush declare a budget emergency. In exchange, the House would give up the goal of making the changes permanent. For many Democrats, Bush's argument that extending jobless benefits would hurt the economic recovery doesn't hold water. What recovery? they ask. "It's just not clear whether the recession is subsiding or not," says a senior Democratic Senate aide. "The economy is certainly not rebounding the way we thought it would six months ago." A survey released Wednesday by the Federal Reserve reported that the recovery remained "uneven" across the country, citing sluggish consumer spending and almost no movement in commercial construction. In another area of workers' rights, Sens. Christopher Bond (R) of Missouri and Christopher Dodd (D) of Connecticut announced Wednesday a compromise proposal for family emergency leave. The bill, the Family and Medical Leave Act, would allow a worker to take 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a newborn or a sick family member. Business lobbyists have opposed this legislation, because they say it would cause undue burden on employers and hurt the economy. Bush vetoed the bill last year. The compromise broadens exemptions for businesses and lowers sanctions against companies that do not rehire workers after leave has expired.

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