U.S. Sen. George J. Mitchell urged President Bush to sign a bill that would extend unemployment benefits to people who have been out of work for six months.
Speaking during a Bangor press conference, Mitchell said that if the bill were approved, it would provide benefits to about 3 million Americans, including about 25,000 Maine families who could receive up to $50 million in extended unemployment compensation.
Saying he was asking for “simple fairness for Americans,” the Senate majority leader emphasized that it wasn’t fair for Bush to deny the emergency help to people in the United States while supplying emergency help to people living in foreign countries.
“We are now saying Americans need help (and) it’s an emergency,” said Mitchell. “Unfortunately, the president says no. He’s prepared to help people overseas, but not to help Americans who need help and need it now.”
The legislation, which was passed by Congress last week, made reforms to the unemployment insurance system and made funds in the federal Unemployment Trust Fund available, said Mitchell. The trust fund has a surplus of $8 billion, which could reach as much as $9.5 billion this year, he said.
Under the bill, 20 weeks of extended compensation would be provided to states with a six-month average unemployment rate of at least 6 percent, with a lesser number of weeks provided to states with lower unemployment rates.
Maine has provided out-of-work employees with an extra 13 weeks of compensation, but those benefits are expected to expire on Saturday.
Claiming that the $5.8 billion bill was too costly, Bush has said he would approve the bill, but withhold the declaration of an emergency to put the legislation into effect.
If Bush vetoes the bill, Congress would produce the votes to override the veto, predicted Mitchell. If the president refuses to establish the emergency, then new legislation would have to be presented in Congress that would require a veto process, which then could be overriden, said the Democrat.
“Frankly, what we hope is that the president will understand the pain that confronts so many American families and sign this into law,” said Mitchell.
In other comments made during the press conference, the Maine senator said that “I don’t think we should pin our hopes” on a federal lawsuit to save Loring Air Force Base. “I think now we have to look to the future.”
A lawsuit may bring about some results, because the Base Closure Commission “acted outside the scope of its authority,” said Mitchell. But, “I think we do have to now look to assisting the County (Aroostook) in making an economic conversion,” he said.
The senator said he already had taken steps to accomplish that. A defense bill passed in the Senate last Friday gives states and local communities first access to closed bases, he said.
Mitchell also said he intended to sponsor legislation to assist local communities in planning, development, and funding to make the economic transition.
Mitchell commented on the $23,000 pay raise for senators that was approved last week. With the elimination of honorariums for speaking engagements, the senator’s own income didn’t increase, according to an aide.
Mitchell acknowledged the anger of constituents, but added that “in the over 200 years of our nation’s history, there has never been a time when the public has favored changes in compensation for public officials.”
The senator also pointed out that members of Congress were required by the U.S. Constitution to set their own compensation.
“I wish that were not the case,” he said. “I would much prefer that it be set by someone other than us,” such as an independent commission.
Mitchell also denied that the timing of the vote on the pay raise was unusual. He said the vote was “commonplace” and occurred “during prime time … right in the heart of the time when the Senate routinely does its business.”
“The criticism over the time is really incorrect and misplaced,” said Mitchell. “It is the regular time that we do business.”