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Bush announces package for unemployed

From John King
CNN Senior White House Correspondent

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush Thursday unveiled an emergency package of unemployment and health aid to assist workers dislocated because of the September 11 attacks.

The measure includes extended unemployment benefits, up to $11 billion in new health care assistance, and $3 billion in emergency grants that governors will for the first time be allowed to use to cover emergency health insurance costs.

Bush announced the package at the Labor Department.

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Current government unemployment benefits run 26 weeks. The president proposed extending that to 39 weeks for 18 months in states where unemployment has jumped 30 percent or more since September 11. That change can only be accomplished through legislation in Congress.

In addition, as part of an initiative that does not require congressional approval, Bush announced the Department of Health and Human Services will make available up to $11 billion in existing funds in the Child Health Insurance Program. The administration is promising expedited waivers for states that want to use those funds to cover not only children but also parents or others who have lost their jobs or sources of income and health coverage because of the terrorist attacks and their direct impact on the economy.

The $3 billion in emergency grants will be in the form of additional money for the existing National Emergency Grant Program, which provides grants to states to use within federal guidelines to help dislocated workers with such things as job training.

Significantly, for the first time the government will allow governors to spend this money to pay up to 75 percent of the premiums for COBRA coverage -- health insurance coverage individuals can buy to extend their employer-based coverage after they lose their jobs. This move will require congressional approval only if the funds do not come from the initial $20 billion that Congress approved as part of a $40 billion emergency package to deal with the aftermath of September 11.

The administration also is encouraging affected workers to take advantage of more than $6 million in existing federal programs that provide job training, placement and other services.

The emergency package comes as the administration negotiates with Congress over the details of an economic stimulus package Bush says should be in the range of $60 billion to $75 billion.

Many conservatives have grumbled that the president was working too closely with the Democrats on the details of that package, and congressional and administration sources said a meeting with leading House conservatives was arranged for late Thursday at the White House at the request of House Speaker Dennis Hastert. Among those invited to the meeting were Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, and Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas.

"They need a little loving," one source said. "They need to hear from the president directly." Asked about that, a senior administration official said, "Let's just say refreshments will be served."

Sen. Trent Lott, R-Mississippi, the Senate GOP leader, arranged a similar meeting with Senate Republicans, several of whom complained publicly Wednesday that the administration's economic stimulus package appeared to be tilted too much toward spending and too little toward tax cuts.

House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Missouri, praised Bush for taking "a step in the right direction" but he agreed with Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, that "we've got to go further."


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