Congress to extend jobless benefits

WASHINGTON — Jarred by new jobless alarms, Congress raced to approve legislation Thursday to keep unemployment checks flowing through the December holidays and into the new year for a million or more laid-off Americans whose benefits are running out.

The Senate's vote followed Thursday's report that laid-off workers' new claims for jobless aid had reached a 16-year high and that the number of Americans searching for work had surged past 10 million.

The White House, which had opposed broader legislation containing the benefits extension, urged passage of the new version and said President George W. Bush would quickly sign it.

The legislation as approved would provide seven additional weeks of payments to people who have exhausted their benefits. Those in states where the unemployment rate is above 6 percent would be entitled to an additional 13 weeks above the 26 weeks of regular benefits. Benefit checks average about $300 a week nationwide.

The benefits provided would be in addition to 13 weeks of federally funded extended benefits approved by Congress in June.

The maximum weekly unemployment benefit in Kentucky is $415.

"I am glad that we were able to extend these benefits today in order to make sure that those folks who are out of work can continue to make ends meet until they are able to find a new job," Sen Jim Bunning, R-Ky., said in a statement after the vote.

About 1.2 million people would exhaust their unemployment insurance by the end of the year without the extension, sponsors said. The measure is estimated to cost about $5.7 billion, although economists put the positive impact at $1.64 for every dollar spent on jobless benefits because the money helps sustain other jobs and restores consumer confidence.

The House had approved the bill in October.

More than 1.2 million jobs have been lost so far this year, and the civilian jobless rate is at a 14-year high of 6.5 percent.

Thursday's Labor Depart ment report said claims for unemployment benefits jumped last week to 542,000, the highest level since July 1992 and fresh evidence of a rapidly weakening job market that is expected to get even worse next year.