WASHINGTON (PAI)–“It’s the economy, stupid.” That 1992 campaign slogan by Bill Clinton might be the theme as the Democratic-run 110th Congress returns to hard work on Capitol Hill in mid-January.

With unemployment jumping to 5% in December, the sub-prime mortgage mess threatening hundreds of thousands of homeowners and other indicators of economic illness on the horizon, lawmakers are starting to consider stimulus ideas.

And the AFL-CIO and other organizations are already calling for an extension of jobless benefits, which were limited, even during the first Bush recession, to 26 weeks after a jobless worker gets approval to receive them. They’ve stayed at 26 weeks.

Meanwhile, the labor-backed Economic Policy Institute unveiled its own $140 billion stimulus package, featuring quick jobless benefits and more infrastructure spending. It would create 1.4 million-1.7 million jobs, EPI’s Lawrence Mishel said.

What all this concern will produce is anyone’s guess. Leading congressional Democrats are already suggesting they enact a stimulus package without offsetting tax increases on the rich. Pay-as-you-go budget rules, designed to stop the increases in the federal deficit, which the Democrats enacted at the start of this Congress, require any new tax cuts or spending be offset.

Anti-worker GOP President George W. Bush says the economic ailments point out the need not to help people immediately, but to make permanent his tax cuts for the rich that the prior GOP-run Congresses enacted at his request.

That’s not what the AFL-CIO, AFSCME, the Iron Workers, the Machinists, the Teamsters, SEIU, UNITE HERE and other groups want Congress to do. “In light of the rapid rise in unemployment, a program of federally funded extended benefits should take effect without delay (their emphasis) and it should last for at least one year, with states provided appropriate funding to properly administer the program,” their letter said.

And since there are now more long-term jobless than there were in 2001, workers “who remain unemployed after exhausting their state benefits should qualify for a maximum of 20 weeks of federally funded extended benefits” on top of the 26 weeks they now get in state benefits. Workers in states with exceptionally high joblessness–such as Michigan–should get another 13 weeks of federal jobless benefits on top of that, the unionists wrote. They did not define “exceptionally high.”

The union leaders also proposed larger weekly jobless benefits, with the feds adding $50 a week to each state’s level of benefits. “Average weekly UI benefits remain egregiously low, just $285 a week,” they explained. That average jobless benefit is now one-third of the average weekly wage.

The extra money would go to jobless people to cover the much-higher costs of gasoline–which they need as they drive to job interviews and sites–and home heating oil, as well as anticipated record rises in food prices, they added.

And they also want Congress to insert an incentive program for the states to cover more of the jobless. That Unemployment Insurance Modernization Act would extend jobless benefits to 300,000 more low-wage workers who right now do not qualify for them, the unionists said.

“That action is needed now is obvious. Today’s job market is already far weaker than it was in March 2001, when the last recession began. Then, the nation’s unemployment rate was 4.3 percent, and the total number of jobless workers had grown 400,000 over the preceding 12 months. In contrast, 900,000 more workers are unemployed today compared to a year ago, and the latest unemployment rate (December 2007) was up significantly to 5 percent,” they added.

EPI has bigger ideas.

“The right stimulus will have the biggest bang for the buck, which comes from increasing unemployment compensation, providing state fiscal relief, issuing targeted tax rebates, and direct federal spending on low-income families through such means as increases in food stamps,” Mishel told the Joint Economic Committee on Jan. 16.

“Infrastructure spending, especially school repair and maintenance, can be done quickly and can efficiently put a million people to work. But even if it takes a year or more to employ large numbers of workers on infrastructure projects, the impact will be timely and important in counteracting rising unemployment and the kind of glacially slow job creation we saw following the 2001 recession,” he added.

“The economy has been broken for some time, and the economic growth we have seen has not reached the vast majority of families. This will probably be the first business cycle where, at the end of the recovery–the last full year being 2007–the typical family will have lower incomes than they did at the start of the downturn: 2000, the last full year of recovery,” he pointed out.

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