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House Democrats Launch Discharge Petition on Unemployment Bill

Senate Counterparts See ‘Disconnect’ Over Debt-Limit Increase

Braced for defeat on the tax-cut package, Democrats turned their attention Thursday to issues on which Republicans may be more vulnerable: unemployment and the deficit.

As the House debated a GOP plan to extend unemployment benefits to workers who have lost their jobs, Democrats sought to force their competing bill onto the floor through a discharge petition.

The Republican bill would extend 13 weeks of federal benefits to workers who have exhausted their state aid and 26 weeks to workers in six states with some of the highest unemployment rates.

But the bill would not do anything for workers who have already exhausted both their state and federal assistance, Democrats argue.

The GOP legislation “will provide no help for those who have been out of work for nine months or longer,” Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.) said in a statement. “Nearly 1.4 million people who have exhausted their state and federal benefits but have not yet found work are left out of the House Republican bill. Another 685,000 people are expected to exhaust their federal benefits over the summer, bringing the number of people without work or benefits to 2 million or higher,” he said.

Democrats fumed about being prevented from offering their alternative — which would give jobless workers facing no assistance another 13 weeks of aid on top of the 13 granted when Congress extended benefits earlier this year — and began circulating a petition to bring their bill to the floor.

Under House rules, if 218 Members sign a discharge petition, the bill in question has to be brought to the floor. It was unclear, however, if Democrats could pick up the 13 Republicans they would need to succeed.

One GOP source familiar with the bill doubts “it has much of a chance.”

Brendan Daly, spokesman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), said he expects “a lot of Democratic support” once they are able to begin collecting signatures Friday. But he admitted he is unsure they will pick up the requisite GOP backing.

At the same time they called the Republican plan inadequate, Democrats tried to take credit for getting the GOP bill to the floor.

“We are not the ones twiddling our thumbs,” Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said in response to a charge from Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) that Democrats were doing just that instead of helping the unemployed. “In fact, I believe it is in large part because of the pressure that we placed on Republicans over the past few weeks that there is an unemployment extension bill on the floor today.”

Pelosi added that Republicans found the topic “too hot to handle” and were forced to act.

A DeLay spokesman dismissed that claim.

“We are extending unemployment insurance not because of Democrats but because of the unemployed who need help,” Jonathan Grella said. “The Democrats ought to get their priorities straight; it is unseemly to play politics with unemployment.”

While House Democrats talked about unemployment insurance, their Senate counterparts tried to portray Republicans as reckless for pushing through a $350 billion tax cut (including $32 billion in state aid and refunds) while also seeking to raise the debt limit by $984 billion.

“If ever there was a disconnect in Washington D.C. … this week would be it,” said Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), ranking member on the Budget Committee.

At the same time Republicans are endorsing tax cuts, they want to raise the national debt by almost $1 trillion, he said. “It’s like the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing,” he added.

The House already approved the Bush administration’s request to raise the debt ceiling when it passed the budget resolution. The Senate is expected to debate the issue later today.

Democrats want to limit the hike to $350 billion, thereby requiring Congress to debate raising it even further sooner.

If the administration request is granted, Congress will not need to address the issue again until the summer of 2004, Senate Finance ranking member Max Baucus (D-Mont.) said. If his amendment is approved, they will have to take it up again in September.

He said it would be “irresponsible” of Congress to put off a serious debate about the country’s fiscal health for 18 months, he said.

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