WASHINGTON – Just hours after Congress passed an $18 billion bill to restore unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed, President Barack Obama made it the law of the land.
The measure comes as welcome relief to hundreds of thousands of people who lost out on the additional weeks of compensation after exhausting their state-paid benefits. They now will be able to reapply for long-term unemployment benefits and receive those checks retroactively under the legislation.
The bill also restores full Medicare payments to doctors who were threatened by a 21 percent cut and refloats the flood insurance program.
Obama signed the bill when he returned to the White House on Thursday night from fundraisers in Miami and a speech earlier in the day at Cape Canaveral, presidential spokesman Bill Burton said.
Obama thanked Congress for passing the temporary extension, saying it was critical to help struggling families make ends meet.
"Millions of Americans who lost their jobs in this economic crisis depend on unemployment and health insurance benefits to get by as they look for work and get themselves back on their feet," Obama said in a statement. "But as I requested in my budget, I urge Congress to move quickly to extend these benefits through the end of this year."
The legislation cleared both houses of Congress on Thursday night. The House passed the bill 289-112 just two hours after it emerged from the Senate on a 59-38 vote that capped an unusually partisan debate. Republicans largely chose to take a stand against the legislation for adding to the $12.8 trillion national despite backing it by wide margins in December and again recently.
"It increases the deficit by $18 billion, a cost to be paid for by future generations," said Rep. Jerry Moran, R-Kan. "This legislation is yet another unfortunate example of business as usual in our nation's capital."
Several other popular programs had also expired, including federal flood insurance, higher Medicare payment rates for doctors and generous health insurance subsidies for people who have lost their jobs.
The situation became more urgent Thursday afternoon when Medicare announced that it would start paying doctors' claims at a 21 percent lower rate. That won't be necessary now.
Thursday's measure provides up to 99 weekly unemployment checks averaging $335 to people whose 26 weeks of state-paid benefits have run out. It's a temporary extension through June 2 that gives House and Senate Democrats time to iron out a measure to fund the program through the end of the year.
Fewer than 1 in 3 House Republicans voted for the measure. Just three Senate Republicans did. The sole Democrat to oppose it was longtime budget hawk Rep. Jim Cooper of Tennessee.
The bill also extends a program created under last year's economic stimulus bill that gives unemployed people a 65 percent subsidy on health care premiums under the so-called COBRA program.