WASHINGTON -- Brushing aside a veto threat by President Bush, the Senate approved a $5.4 billion bill yesterday to continue emergency extension of jobless benefits through next March for workers who exhaust their basic 26-week unemployment payments.
The action, taken by voice vote, clears the way for a Senate-House conference to work out compromise legislation that Congress is expected to adopt before the current program of extra benefits expires July 4.
The House version would provide up to 26 additional weeks of benefits and also would change the law to make it easier for workers to get extended benefits in the future when unemployment is high.
"At first blush, it appears to me the unemployment
[compensation] package is headed for another veto," said Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan. "But we'll have a chance to negotiate before the bill is sent to the president."
Mr. Bush has backed a less generous bill that would extend benefits by up to 20 weeks and authorize a study on whether to make permanent changes in the program.
With the national jobless rate up to 7.5 percent last month, Democrats believe they have an election-year advantage in pressing the issue.
The Senate bill would continue extra jobless benefits for 33 or 26 weeks, depending on unemployment levels in a worker's state, unless the national rate dropped below 7 percent for two months in a row. If that happened, the number of additional weeks would be gradually reduced.
The House bill would provide 20 or 26 weeks of extra benefits, phasing out over a three-month period starting Jan. 1 or one month after the national unemployment rate fell below 6.5 percent.
The benefits now average about $170 a week, but vary by state. An estimated 300,000 workers who use up their regular benefits each month would be helped by the bill.
"Despite some positive signs that the economy is beginning to move a little, the situation remains very grim for 9.5 million unemployed Americans, and the need for new legislation is clear," said Sen. Lloyd M. Bentsen, D-Texas, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and chief sponsor of the bill.