WASHINGTON The House on Wednesday narrowly defeated a Democratic attempt to give unemployed Americans an extra three months of jobless benefits, after the White House threatened to veto the bill.
But Democratic leaders said they will bring the bill back for a second vote on Thursday.
The bill would have extended the average $300-a-week benefit check by 13 weeks for all unemployed Americans. Job seekers in high unemployment states such as Alaska, California, Michigan and Rhode Island would have been able to get an extra 13 weeks on top of that.
House Democratic leaders brought up the bill under a procedure that required a two-thirds vote for approval. The final vote was 279-144, just three votes shy of the two-thirds margin needed to overcome a presidential veto. Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, voted for the measure, while Republican Reps. Chris Cannon and Rob Bishop of Utah voted against it.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said the vote Thursday will only need a majority for passage. "We're not going to let this sink," Hoyer said. "Our work is not done," added House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
Majority Democrats said the legislation was needed because of the tough economy and rising unemployment rate. The number of unemployed Americans rose to 8.5 million in May. The jobless rate jumped to 5.5 percent in May from 5 percent in April, the biggest monthly rise since 1986.
"Republicans want to extend unemployment benefits in a responsible way. We believe this bill was irresponsible," Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio said after the vote. "There's a way to do this in a bipartisan way and extend unemployment benefits in those areas where it's needed."
Republicans also accused House Democrats of playing political games by requiring a two-thirds majority for passage. The bill would have passed if it needed only a simple majority, but Democrats can now campaign on Republicans blocking an unemployment extension. Rep. Jerry Weller, R-Ill., called it "cynical election-year maneuvering."
Democrats, for their part, criticized Republicans for voting against the bill.
"There is no better example after today's vote why we need a change in November," Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., the House's fourth-ranking Democrat said after the vote.
The White House threatened to veto the bill only hours before the vote. The Bush administration said emergency steps like extending unemployment benefits have historically been taken only when the unemployment rate jumps considerably higher than the 5.5 percent reported for May.
The Bush administration also complained that the bill gives extended benefits to all states, regardless of their unemployment rates. For example, South Dakota and Wyoming reported unemployment rates of 2.6 percent. "It is fiscally irresponsible to provide extra benefits in states with low unemployment rates," the White House statement said.
White House officials said they could support a bill that only offers the 13-week extension to high-unemployment states. But Democrats argued that the 8.5 million already unemployed should not have to wait for things to get worse before the federal government helps them.
Republicans said the Democratic bill also deletes a provision that requires people to work 20 weeks before getting unemployment benefits. "It is not too much to expect someone to have worked for at least five months to collect up to a total of 12 months of unemployment benefits," Weller said.
The Labor Department said keeping the 20-week requirement would mean that 10 percent of the unemployed would not be able to take advantage of the benefits, said Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash. That includes low-wage workers, part-time workers and women who may have to leave to have children, he said.
In the Senate, Democrats planned to add the measure to a must-pass war spending bill.
Unemployment insurance is a joint program between states and the federal government that is almost completely funded by employer taxes, either state or federal. Only three states Alaska, New Jersey and Pennsylvania collect taxes from workers for their unemployment benefit programs.
The House legislation would extend unemployment benefits for an additional 13 weeks in all 50 states and the District of Columbia for workers who exhaust their regular 26 weeks of unemployment benefits.
States with an unemployment rate of 6 percent or more would get an additional 13 weeks of unemployment benefits. Michigan (6.9), Alaska (6.7), California (6.2), Rhode Island (6.1) and the District of Columbia (6.0) are the only places currently that qualify.
The extension would run through March, although unemployed workers who are already getting extra benefits before then would get their entire 13 weeks.