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Administration considering aid for workers

From Major Garrett
CNN Washington Bureau

HAGERSTOWN, Maryland (CNN) -- President Bush is weighing an economic aid package to help those who lost jobs in the airline and other industries in the wake of the September 11 terror attacks, a senior administration official told CNN on Saturday.

"The president is taking a good, hard look at specific ideas not just for the airline sector but for others affected," the official said. "He's looking at extending unemployment benefits, providing health care. The president wants to move."

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The official said the White House is looking to build support in Congress for a bill to deal with the economic pain of those laid off in the airline, tourist and restaurant sectors and a separate bill to provide economic stimulus to the national economy. The White House, the official said, is looking to outline specifics on both pieces of legislation in the coming week.

"That's a step in the right direction," a senior House Democratic aide said. "We really hope the administration will move swiftly on an economic aid package."

Negotiations between the Bush White House and Congress have intensified this week on both subjects. Democratic leaders have increased their insistence that the economic suffering felt by millions of laid-off workers be addressed sooner rather than later.

While flying aboard Air Force One on the return flight from Chicago on Thursday, House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt pushed Bush to add an aid package to the airline security bill for laid-off workers.

The White House opposes that approach, preferring to have Congress move quickly on moves to increase security at airports and aboard planes, rather than bogging it down with a potentially contentious debate over a worker-relief package.

Even so, White House interest in laying out specifics on an economic aid package pleases Democrats, who feared such relief would be shunted aside as the administration focused on counter-terrorism and airline security legislation.

The White House was also said to be near an agreement with House and Senate appropriations leaders on the contours of the 2002 budget. Agreement has been reached, sources said, to boost spending by $25 billion over Bush's original budget. But Democrats are eager for the White House to make a specific, written request of this budget boost to avoid any political fallout later. That request has delayed a final deal, sources said.

The outline of the budget discussions call for Bush to receive all of the $18.4 billion increase in defense spending, and Democrats to win $4 billion more for education spending than the president originally sought. The new budget would also include about $2.5 billion for emergency spending for disasters unrelated to the terrorist attacks in New York and Virginia.

House Democrats have asked White House budget director Mitch Daniels for a letter outlining the White House request for the new spending. The White House has balked. Senior administration officials continued discussions Saturday on the budget, but a final deal proved elusive. White House and congressional sources predicted an eventual compromise, however.

The senior administration official said these three issues -- an economic stimulus package, an aid package and a 2002 budget -- will put the new atmosphere of bipartisanship to a severe test.

"The five leaders have really been working very well together," the official said, referring to Bush and the four top congressional leaders. "But it's sometimes hard for leaders to get followers. It's difficult for the rank-and-file. They're not in the meetings. There are various factions from various ideological points of view."

Some conservative Republicans, for example, are expected to balk at some of the spending increases in the new budget and may revolt if the administration, as many expect, approves a boost in the minimum wage as part of an economic stimulus bill. Similarly, liberal Democrats may oppose the extra defense spending and balk at a cut in the capital gains tax, also widely expected to be included in an economic stimulus plan.

Lastly, Democrats are pushing for an additional 52 weeks in unemployment benefits for workers who've lost jobs directly or indirectly as a result of the terrorist attacks. The White House and many Republicans consider that excessive, considering the benefits would come on top of the standard 26-week allotment of unemployment benefits.

"The president has reached no conclusions," the senior official said. "He would like very much for the leadership to remain united. He remains hopeful that can happen. But that's proved harder than anticipated."


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