WASHINGTON John McCain is just one of dozens of Republicans abandoning President Bush to join Democrats who want to extend unemployment payments for people whose benefits have run out.
"We have to extend the unemployment benefits," McCain said Tuesday on CNBC. "We have to ... because we all know Americans are hurting, and hurting badly."
McCain, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, hasn't been shy about trying to separate himself from the unpopular Bush. And neither are a bucketful of Republicans in the House as they confront a vote this week on extending benefits for the longer-term jobless. The half-percentage point jump reported last week in the nationwide unemployment rate only cements momentum behind the idea.
"This is a no-brainer," said Rep. Phil English, R-Pa. "It provides extended benefits at a time people are feeling deep insecurity."
Dozens of House Republicans are likely to abandon Bush on a vote this week to award 13 additional weeks of unemployment compensation to people who've used up their benefits. Republican leaders and staff aides conceded that they were unlikely to be able to prevent Democrats from getting enough votes to override a likely veto.
The legislation would make more than 1 million people immediately eligible for extended benefits, with 3 million more becoming eligible in coming months. A House vote is expected as early as Thursday. Benefits vary by state, but the nationwide average is about $300 a week.
The White House opposes the extension, saying such emergency steps have historically been taken only when the unemployment rate jumps considerably higher than the 5.5 percent reported for May.
Administration officials are devoting their energies to making sure the unemployment provisions are not attached to a must-pass Iraq spending bill making its way through Congress.
"While it's a concern that the unemployment rate jumped to 5.5 percent, that is still historically low and lower than the averages of the '70s, '80s and '90s," White House Press secretary Dana Perino said last week.
But with Bush's clout ebbing on Capitol Hill, many Republicans already are breaking with the White House especially those in districts tilting Democratic or where unemployment is high.
The situation is more tricky in the hard-to-control Senate, where Democratic leaders are pressing to keep the unemployment benefits extension linked to the Iraq bill.
"We're in a pretty tough situation up North right now," said GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, where the 6.7 percent unemployment rate is the second highest in the country.
Democrats had sought to include the unemployment insurance extension in the economic stimulus legislation passed early in the year, only to be blocked by opposition from the administration and House GOP leader John Boehner of Ohio.
Many economists say giving cash to the unemployed is an efficient way to boost the economy since they are likely to spend it immediately.
"It will not only help people who have lost their jobs and been unable to find new ones, but it'll also give a boost to the economy," Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said.
Last month Democrats won a veto-proof 75-22 vote to add the unemployment insurance extension to the Bush's war spending bill, along with more generous GI Bill college benefits for Iraq veterans and more than $10 billion in other domestic spending.
If the White House prevails in getting the unemployment insurance extension struck from the war funding bill, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., would consider bringing it up as a stand-alone measure, spokesman Jim Manley said. But Reid is skeptical that a dozen or so Republicans would join Democrats to achieve the 60 vote tally needed to break a filibuster.
Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., said Republicans probably would filibuster the measure as too broad providing benefits in states with low unemployment and too expensive, costing about $16 billion over two years.
"Apparently, the Republicans do not believe that people who are unemployed now that we've reached near record increases (in joblessness) are deserving of additional unemployment benefits," Durbin said.