WASHINGTON – Pausing barely long enough to take the oath of office, the new Republican-controlled Congress hastened toward passage of unemployment assistance for victims of the sagging economy yesterday, working with unusual speed on a day customarily set aside for ceremony and socializing.
“First bill, passed it,” said Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), the newly minted majority leader, shortly after the Senate approved the bill to restore lapsed benefits despite complaints from Democrats it didn’t go far enough. Across the Capitol, Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) said the House would clear the measure for President Bush’s signature in a day or two, ensuring no disruption of benefits for those currently receiving them.
The legislation, estimated to cost $7.2 billion, would renew a program of 13 weeks of federal benefits for jobless workers who have exhausted their 26 weeks of state benefits. The 13-week program expired on Dec. 28, but administration officials say the benefits can continue uninterrupted as long as Bush signs legislation to renew them by tomorrow. Officials said an estimated 750,000 people are affected, plus an additional 1.6 million who are expected to become eligible for the federal assistance before the program extension expires on June 1.
The Senate acted on Congress’ first day in session since the November elections in which Bush led fellow Republicans to control of both houses. For his part, the president was in Chicago outlining a $674 billion economic package he hopes lawmakers will enact later in the year. Bush summoned congressional leaders from both parties and both chambers to the White House for a meeting this afternoon on the work ahead.
With the Senate in Republican hands, Bush also resubmitted 31 judicial nominations, including two that were at the center of pitched political battles in 2002. U.S. District Judge Charles Pickering of Mississippi and Texas Supreme Court Justice Priscilla Owen were blocked from confirmation to the federal appeals courts by votes of the Democratic-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee a year ago.
The president’s call for confirmation of conservative judges and for new tax cuts, as well as additional anti-terrorism measures and spending bills to cover the cost of a military buildup in the Persian Gulf, will likely wait for weeks or months while the new 108th Congress organizes its committees for action.