WASHINGTON The U.S. Congress approved more aid for jobless workers and broadened tax breaks for homebuyers and businesses on Thursday and sent the measure to President Barack Obama to sign into law.
The measure, which aims to breathe life into the ailing U.S. economy, passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 403 to 12, one day after it was unanimously approved by the Senate.
Democrats who control Congress are under pressure to get the economy moving before the November 2010 congressional elections. But they have been reluctant to assemble another massive stimulus package after February's $787 billion measure, fearing a voter backlash over record federal budget deficits.
Instead, they opted for a smaller package that broadens several existing measures without adding to the deficit.
The House had approved additional jobless benefits in September, but the measure languished in the Senate for weeks while lawmakers there bickered over unrelated provisions.
In the meantime, some 600,000 jobless workers stopped getting the weekly checks that help them pay their bills while they look for work.
"This is the right thing to do, and we shouldn't have waited so long to do it," said Democratic Representative Jim McDermott, the bill's original sponsor.
The payments usually expire after six months but Congress has already extended them twice in a severe recession that has been marked by a high number of long-term unemployed.
Unemployment stood at 9.8 percent in September, the highest since 1983, and analysts expect a government report on Friday to show that it climbed to 9.9 percent in October.
The rate is expected to rise into next year, even as the economy climbs out of its deepest recession since the 1930s.
The bill would give the unemployed an additional 14 weeks of benefit payments, which average $308 per week. Those in high-unemployment states would get six weeks on top of that.
Economists say the payments stimulate the economy because they are spent quickly and help the jobless avoid foreclosure and bankruptcy.
HOMEBUYER CREDIT EXPANDED
The bill also extends an $8,000 tax credit for first-time homebuyers until April 30 and expands it to cover more affluent buyers. It also creates a new $6,500 credit for repeat buyers who have been in their current home for at least five years.
The tax credit for first-time buyers, which was due to expire on Nov. 30, has helped the housing sector recover from its deep downturn, though some analysts say it has largely gone to people who would have bought houses anyway.
Another provision of the bill would allow businesses to get a break on their tax bills by applying losses from 2008 or 2009 to recover taxes paid in prior years when the economy was booming. This expands a tax break that currently only applies to small businesses.
Business groups say the change would give cash-strapped companies immediate access to capital, but consumer groups have criticized it as corporate welfare.
The additional unemployment benefits would be paid for by extending a tax on employers. The housing and business tax breaks, which would cost the government $21.2 billion over 10 years, would be financed by delaying a rule change that governs how companies allocate interest expenses.
(Editing by Tim Ahmann and Vicki Allen)