WASHINGTON — Congress took further steps to right the staggering economy by expanding a popular tax credit for homebuyers and extending unemployment checks for the growing legions of people running out of benefits with few job prospects.
The White House said the legislation builds on its efforts to spur job creation and President Barack Obama would sign it into law Friday morning.
The House passed the bill on a 403-12 vote Thursday, a day after the Senate ended a monthlong stalemate with a 98-0 vote. With some 7,000 people exhausting unemployment benefits every day and the $8,000 tax credit for first-time homebuyers set to expire at the end of November, there was a sense of urgency in getting it to Obama's desk.
The $24 billion package also contains tax credits aimed at struggling businesses.
The IRS says some 1.4 million people applied for the homebuyers credit through August, helping enliven the moribund housing market. The legislation would extend the program through June of next year, as long as the buyer signs a contract by the end of April. It also offers a $6,500 tax credit to those who have lived in their current residence at least five years.
The measure doubles the income ceiling for eligible individuals to $125,000. Homes must cost less than $800,000 to qualify.
The nearly 2 million who have exhausted their unemployment benefits or face termination of benefits, usually about $300 a week, before the end of the year would receive 14 weeks of additional benefits under the bill. The unemployed in those states where the jobless rate tops 8.5 percent would get six weeks on top of that.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said the bill would also help the economy because the unemployed quickly spend their checks on living necessities. "We help people in very bad straits and we help our economy and help us all."
All but 12 Republicans voted for the bill, although several took the opportunity to swipe at the Obama administration's efforts to produce new jobs. "Make no mistake, the unemployment benefits are no substitute for a good job,"said Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas.
The extension would be the fourth since June of last year and the first since the $787 billion stimulus package was enacted last February. The unemployed in the hardest-hit states could, once the bill becomes law, receive a maximum of 99 weeks of benefits, well above the previous record of 65 weeks in the 1970s.
Lawmakers said aggressive measures are needed because the unemployment rate, now at 9.8 percent, is expected to hover around 10 percent into next year and more than one-third of the 15 million unemployed have been looking for work for at least six months, a record.
The nation has lost 8 million jobs since the "great recession" began at the end of 2007, said Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., a chief sponsor of the legislation. Even with the recession winding down, "we know it will take considerable time to restore those lost jobs."
"A stunning 600,000 workers ran out of jobless benefits in the past two months alone, and thousands more are projected to by the end of the year," said Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project. "Workers need this extension, the economy needs this extension."
The bill only applies to those running out of benefits before the end of the year, and McDermott reminded his colleagues that Congress may have to revisit the issue before it adjourns for the year.
The bill would also allow businesses that have incurred losses in 2008 and 2009 to seek refunds for taxes paid on profits over the past five years.
The two tax credits, each costing more than $10 billion over 10 years, are paid for by delaying enactment of a law giving international companies more leeway in how they allocate interest expenses between U.S. and foreign sources in determining tax liabilities.
The $2.4 billion cost of extending unemployment benefits is offset by extending through June 2011 the federal unemployment tax that employers pay for each employee.
The three measures would add $43 billion to the 2010 deficit and then be repaid over time.
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