Battle brews over benefits

When running for office, President Bush billed himself as a "compassionate conservative." By now, few ardent liberals accept that self-description.

The danger to Republicans is that the political middle will question this terminology. Many already have an impression that Mr. Bush shifts in the direction of helping the less fortunate only when pushed by political necessity.

One test of the president's compassion will come quickly.

The president asked last month that the new Congress take up the extension of unemployment benefits as its first order of business this week. To the dismay of liberal groups, Bush did not specify what type of extension - a skimpy one pushed through by the Republican leadership in the House or a more generous one passed by the Democratic-controlled Senate last fall.

Benefits for 780,000 unemployed workers and their families ran out Dec. 28 after the House and Senate failed to agree on an extension before Congress adjourned Nov. 22. Another 1 million have already used up their 13 weeks of extended benefits under the federal program. And a further 95,000 workers will exhaust their state benefits each coming week if Congress doesn't act.

"It is unconscionable that the president didn't exercise much leadership on this issue," says Wendell Primus, an expert at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington. "That's fairly heartless. It is ridiculous to shut off these benefits to those workers who have borne the brunt of the recession."

His big complaint is that the president didn't step into the House-Senate dispute to get an extension decision.

Another test of Bush sympathy for the "little guy" will come tomorrow in the details of his tax-cut package. Liberals wonder how many of the tax "goodies" will go to those with middle or lower incomes as opposed to the well-to-do and business.

In the 2001 tax cut, it was the Democrats who insisted on income tax cuts for lower-income Americans. But Bush took credit for the whole package.

Already the Bush administration, in putting final touches on a new "stimulus" package, has reportedly included several measures to help middle- income families. Among them are a faster increase in the child-care tax credit, and quicker relief of the so-called marriage penalty, which pushes two-income families into higher tax brackets. Such measures may soften criticisms from Democrats that the tax cuts are designed for the rich.

After a report last month that the administration was considering increasing the tax burden on low-income workers, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D) of New York charged the administration with "a new low" that "would make only one person proud - Scrooge."

Democrats are appealing to the masses with their tax proposals. Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts, for example, is calling for a payroll-tax holiday. He notes that nearly three-quarters of all taxpaying Americans pay more payroll tax than income tax.

Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota suggests tax cuts aimed at the middle class, stating he would oppose cuts mainly for the wealthy and not helping the economy.

Bush has a new economic team - John Snow as Treasury Secretary and Steven Friedman as director of the National Economic Council. It will have an opportunity to show political pragmatism in negotiating with Congress over tax legislation, regulatory policies, corporate governance issues, and pension and shareholder protection.

In regard to jobless benefits, they will have to deal with William Thomas, the chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. The California Republican is regarded by liberal critics as being too ideological - "out of the conservative mainstream," charges Ross Eisenbrey, vice president of the Economic Policy Institute in Washington.

The House's refusal to vote on the Senate-passed jobless benefit bill "ignores the reality that long-term joblessness exists," says Maurice Emsellem, public policy director of the National Employment Law Project. "This is uncompassionate conservatism on the part of the House leadership."

The website of the Ways and Means Committee charges that the Democratic plan would deplete 59 percent of the federal unemployment trust funds in just six months, costing $17 billion.

To Mr. Emsellem, that charge is "absolutely ridiculous." The purpose of the $25 billion in the fund is to provide extended jobless benefits, he notes.

Further, the Senate-passed bipartisan bill, sponsored by Senator Clinton and Sen. Don Nickles (R) of Oklahoma, would cost only $5 billion. It would allow the jobless nationwide to apply for extensions through March 31.

The House measure would assist people only in Alaska, Washington, and Oregon, states with high unemployment levels, and only for five weeks.

To Mr. Eisenbrey, the House measure doesn't make sense. The long-term jobless are suffering financially "every bit as much" in a low-unemployment state as in a high-unemployment state.

The Ways and Means website refers to academic studies showing that longer jobless benefits lead to "more and longer unemployment," implying that some jobless people take work only when they run out of funds.

That may be true in some cases. But one goal of jobless benefits is to allow people more time to find the right job. And at this time, there are more than two jobless for every job vacancy.

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