WASHINGTON — The last of Scott Carmichael's state unemployment benefits are dribbling toward extinction. So, without much faith in Congress, he cashed in his retirement pension.
After tax penalties, his $27,000 account probably won't amount to more than $17,000, but Carmichael, 45, of Rowlett, Texas, thought he had little choice. Counting on an extra 13 weeks of federal benefits was just too risky.
The laid-off WorldCom worker, watching Congress open its new session this week on C-SPAN, was stunned to see at the top of the legislative agenda a $7.25 billion plan to extend federal benefits to 1.6 million people like himself — victims of an ailing economy who would become eligible if they exhausted their state benefits before June 1.
Even more startling was the speed at which the legislation sailed through, landing on President Bush's desk Wednesday.
"I think it's great," said Carmichael, whose wife is a stay-at-home mom to their children, ages 1 and 3. The biweekly check of $574 helped them keep their home. "It's about time they did something."
Bush's signature also renewed 13 weeks of federal emergency benefits that were cut off Dec. 28 for more than 750,000 jobless workers who hadn't exhausted them. Congress adjourned late last year in a stalemate over the program and let it expire.
But the swift action this week means checks will be issued on time without a lapse in benefits, the Labor Department said. Bush placed his signature on the bill a few hours after it cleared the House on a vote of 416-4. The Senate unanimously passed the measure Tuesday.
Carmichael, a Bush supporter, said he mostly blamed Republicans — but not the president — for neglecting the nation's unemployed by waiting until January to extend the program.
He also said he is eager to learn more about the "re-employment accounts" that Bush proposed this week to help people with job-search expenses. The debate in Congress also gave Carmichael a new perspective on a Democrat he didn't much care for — New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
"She swayed me with the way she spoke," he said. "She was definitely for the people. She was very instrumental in it."
For the millions of Americans looking for work, the aid won't come a minute too soon. The nation's unemployment rate has soared to match an eight-year high of 6 percent in November. December's figures will be released Friday by the Labor Department.
Lawrence Taylor, 27, of Philadelphia, said the threat of losing federal benefits has kept him up most nights. He was laid off in May from his job installing electric meters.
"If I told you I'm not worrying, I'd be crazy," said Taylor, who lives with his girlfriend and their 5-year-old son. "I've stayed up many nights, worrying where the money is going to come to pay the bills."
"It's a great relief," he said of the renewal Bush authorized.
Taylor said he's filled out 35 job applications, but no one is hiring. He's two months behind on the water, electric and gas bills. He used his last unemployment check, for $592, to pay the mortgage.
"I used to get up every morning and go to work. I like to pay my bills on time. I had excellent credit," he said of life before unemployment.
Jobless workers qualifying for the extra 13 weeks from the federal government receive the same weekly benefit that they got in state aid. The average weekly benefit was $249.92, according to the latest Labor Department data.
The average benefit was lowest in Alabama, where jobless workers got $165.03 per week. The highest was in Massachusetts, with a weekly average of $353.29.
Julia Jeffcoat, also from Philadelphia, is one of about 1 million unemployed people who won't get aid. She's already used all of hers, and Democrats in the House and Senate failed to persuade the new Republican-controlled Congress to offer another round of benefits to such people.
Jeffcoat, a single mother, lost her full-time security job in December 2001 and still can't find permanent work. She was evicted from her apartment and had to move in with relatives.
"We are in trouble," she said. "We need a hand until a job opens up."
The measure Congress passed was far more generous than House GOP leaders were willing to approve late last year and more than even the Democrats were proposing in November.
The House had approved a five-week extension in federal benefits last fall, but only for the jobless in three high-unemployment states. Bush's late support for a more generous plan prodded House Republican leaders to accept largely the same compromise package crafted last fall by Clinton and Sen. Don Nickles, R-Okla.