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Sun National Staff
WASHINGTON - About 780,000 jobless Americans will lose their unemployment benefits at midnight, and a prolonged dispute between Republicans and Democrats could keep them and thousands more workers cut off from further aid for weeks.
Those affected, including roughly 10,000 Marylanders, are caught in the middle of a partisan debate about how generous the government should be in providing additional benefits. Having failed to reach agreement before adjourning for the year, Congress is expected to act soon after it returns Jan. 7.
Democrats are calling for 13 more weeks of federal jobless aid, while Republicans have proposed shorter extensions targeted to states with higher unemployment rates.
Any delay will have dire consequences for those out of work. Each week, an estimated 95,000 additional people nationwide, and 900 in Maryland, according to government figures, are projected to run out of benefits. They, too, will be left without aid until Congress acts.
The national jobless rate is 6 percent, and many economists expect it to rise in coming months. Although the number of Americans filing for initial unemployment benefits has dropped recently - it fell by 61,000 in the week ending Dec. 14 - there are currently 3.5 million people drawing unemployment insurance, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Maryland's jobless rate has hovered around 4 percent in recent months, but the number of Marylanders filing for initial benefits is on the rise. The maximum weekly unemployment benefit in Maryland is $280.
The unemployment issue is fraught with political peril for President Bush. He is painfully aware that economic woes during his father's administration - and his father's perceived aloofness - exacted a grave political cost, perhaps costing him re-election in 1992.
Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Southern Maryland Democrat who is his party's No. 2 leader, accused Republicans yesterday of "crass indifference" in their handling of unemployment benefits, blaming them for Congress' inaction last month.
Bush, who had said little about jobless benefits for months, asked Congress in his radio address two weeks ago to act in January to extend unemployment benefits for the 780,000 workers, and to make the action retroactive so they would essentially be reimbursed for weeks they missed during the lapse.
Today, top Democrats will renew their call for Bush and the new, Republican-led Congress to help the jobless. Extending jobless aid will be the topic of the Democrats' weekly radio response, to be delivered by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York.
"Democrats were pleased that the president belatedly acknowledged that families need help. However, kind words are not enough," Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota said in a written statement.
"Democrats again urge the administration to intervene with Republican leaders to pass a genuine extension of unemployment insurance as the first order of business when Congress convenes in January."
Tonight's cutoff stems from an economic stimulus law approved this year that provided an additional 13 weeks of federally funded unemployment benefits to those who had used up their regular state aid, which usually lasts 26 weeks.
That law expires at midnight, and until Congress extends the benefits, thousands of unemployed people will go without aid.
Most immediately affected are the 780,000 individuals who used up their regular state benefits and are now collecting the additional 13 weeks of federal aid. Regardless of when they began collecting the federal jobless benefits, they will be cut off.
Also at risk are the 95,000 per week who will be exhausting their state benefits. After today, they will no longer be eligible to receive an additional 13 weeks of federal benefits.
And for people whose state and federal benefits have completely run out, but who have yet to find a job, there is currently no way for them to receive additional unemployment aid.
Democrats are proposing to extend the extra federal unemployment benefits for an additional 13 weeks through June 30, effectively providing workers who exhaust their state benefits from now on with 26 weeks of federal aid.
The plan, sponsored by top House Ways and Means Committee Democrats Benjamin L. Cardin of Baltimore, Sander M. Levin of Michigan and Robert T. Matsui of California, would allow the 780,000 individuals who lose eligibility for their 13 additional weeks of federal benefits after today to claim those, plus another 13 weeks after that.
The latest proposal from Republicans, floated last week by Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas of California, would allow workers whose federal benefits have been cut off to get the rest of the 13 weeks. Under the plan, jobless workers in about 16 states with the highest unemployment rate would get an additional nine weeks of aid.
Rep. Phil English, a Pennsylvania Republican, is proposing a measure that would allow those cut off today to receive the rest of their federal benefits, plus an additional six weeks of aid, and allow more states to qualify for the 26 weeks of federal benefits awarded to states with the highest unemployment rates.
"We are in a climate where an awful lot of people, as their benefits expire, are having difficulty finding suitable work," said English. "There's a compelling case to be made that extending these benefits would be a useful stabilizer, not only for family incomes, but also for the communities that these people live in."