Citing the nation's climbing unemployment rate, Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, urged Senate Democratic leaders today to include an extension of unemployment insurance in the Iraq war supplemental spending package. The unemployment rate surged to 5.5 percent in May, up 0.5 percent from April, according to the Labor Department. The monthly increase was the largest since February 1986. "For the fifth month this year, U.S. employers have cut jobs, including 49,000 in the month of May alone," said Snowe, a senior member of the Senate Finance Committee, in a press release. "Unemployment is at its highest level since October of 2004." She added: "The Senate should fight to keep the unemployment extension in the emergency supplemental bill."
Today's report gave Democratic leaders added incentive to keep the unemployment extension provision in the package, Democratic aides said. House Democratic leaders had initially sought to scale back the domestic spending portion of the package approved by the Senate last month, including the unemployment insurance provision, in an effort to entice Republican support and avert a White House veto. President Bush has said that he would veto the Senate supplemental in part because of the measure's domestic spending. Democratic House leaders hope to take up the supplemental next week. Leadership aides said veterans' education benefit spending and federal food assistance program funding still remain in the measure. But it is unclear just how counter-narcotics spending and Medicaid regulatory provisions, both of which the White House has raised concerns about, will be handled. In her statement today, Snowe said she is urging the Senate "to hold fast to its overwhelming support of this [benefits] extension" despite divisions in the House. "This crucial legislation is, after all, an Emergency Supplemental, not exclusively a War Supplemental. ... We are on the cusp of a true emergency."
Snowe's comments come as the AFL-CIO and House Education and Labor Chairman George Miller have pushed Democratic leaders to reconsider dropping the provision, sources said. Her comments follow those of Senate Majority Leader Reid, who said Thursday he would prefer that the unemployment provision remain in the supplemental package and that a White House veto threat should not deter lawmakers from doing what they believe is best for the nation. Reid today called the jump in the unemployment rate troubling and said "it is well past time for [the Bush] administration to work with us to extend unemployment insurance." The proposal included in the Senate package would provide up to 13 weeks of extended unemployment benefits in every state to workers exhausting the 26 weeks of regular unemployment benefits. In states with higher levels of unemployment, an additional 13 weeks would be available, for a total of 26 weeks of extended benefits. The provision is expected to cost $11 billion over 10 years.
This article appears in the June 7, 2008 edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.