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Angie Drobnic Holan
By Angie Drobnic Holan July 13, 2010

Republicans supported unemployment insurance under Bush

Congress has been unable to agree how to boost the economy, creating headaches for President Obama and his Democratic Party.

Obama adviser David Axelrod took questions on the issue from Jake Tapper on ABC News' This Week. "How can the president create jobs without there being any willingness on Capitol Hill to spend money to do so?" Tapper asked.

Axelrod agreed there is "not a great appetite" for additional spending in Congress.

"But I do think there are some things we still can accomplish. I do think that we can get additional tax relief for small businesses. That's what we want to do, additional lending for small businesses. They're an engine of economic growth. We're hoping we can persuade enough people on the other side of the aisle to put politics aside and join us on that. (And) unemployment insurance, we ought to extend unemployment insurance. People are suffering," Axelrod said.

"You can't get the votes, though," Tapper interjected.

"Well, we'll see. We'll see," Axelrod said. "But at a time when there's one job vacancy for five unemployed workers looking for jobs, clearly we have a responsibility to do it. The Republicans met that responsibility each time under President Bush, when he asked to extend unemployment insurance. They ought to do it now. Let's not play politics with this issue."

We were intrigued by Axelrod's statement that Republicans helped President George W. Bush pass extensions for unemployment insurance. So we decided to fact-check it.

A little background on unemployment insurance: When workers lose full-time work through no fault of their own, they are usually eligible for unemployment benefits, small weekly payments intended to partially make up for lost wages. Employers pay taxes to fund the program, and states administer it based on federal guidelines. How much a person gets and how long benefits are paid varies by state. Usually, the benefits last about six months.

In tough times, though, Congress often extends benefits, because of the difficulty of finding new jobs when unemployment is very high, as it has been since 2008, when the economy floundered. As a result, Congress has been arguing this summer about extending benefits again after extending them five times since Obama took office in 2009. Recent extensions have been structured so that workers in states where unemployment is higher receive additional weeks of benefits. In the states where unemployment is highest, some unemployed workers have been paid benefits for close to two years.

But the extensions have run out for some workers, and Congress has been unable to agree on whether to extend them again. That's the context in which Axelrod commented that Republicans extended unemployment for Bush "when he asked."

We found several instances of President Bush signing into law unemployment insurance extensions. Some extensions were highly targeted, such as aid to airline workers after 9/11 and to victims of Hurricane Katrina. But Bush signed two general extensions in 2003 for 13 weeks each, with significant Republican support. He also signed extensions in 2008 with Republican support.

We were unable to find any instances when Bush asked for an extension of unemployment benefits and Congress refused him. None of the experts we consulted could recall such a case. So Axelrod was technically right that Bush appears to have gotten Congress to extend unemployment insurance "when he asked."

But in reviewing news articles on unemployment during the Bush administration, we noticed that, even when they supported extending benefits, Bush and Congressional Republicans were generally more skeptical than Democrats were. We noted that Republicans said then the same thing that some conservatives say now, which is that unemployment payments are a disincentive in some cases to taking a new job. Economists have noted this effect in studies, but they say that it is more significant during normal economic times.

Axelrod's comment implies that Republicans were willing to extend unemployment insurance under Bush but are balking now that Obama is president. But we find the employment landscapes under Bush and Obama so different as to defy comparison. Extensions under Bush usually were for fairly short periods of time, such as two 13-week extensions in 2003.

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Also, some Republicans want the current extension combined with other spending cuts, to prevent the deficit from getting bigger. Projected deficits now are much larger than they were under Bush. Finally, it's worth noting that some reports indicate the unemployment legislation has failed to gain Republican support because Democrats have combined it with other measures.

While Axelrod is right that Republicans supported Bush's proposals to extend unemployment benefits, it's important to note that there are differences between then and now. So, we rate his statement Mostly True.

Our Sources

ABC News' This Week, transcript, July 11, 2010

U.S. Department of Labor, Chronology of federal unemployment compensation laws, April 10, 2010

The New York Times, Bush Signs Bill to Extend Unemployment Benefits, Jan. 9, 2003

The New York Times, House Passes Bill Extending Aid to Jobless by 13 Weeks, May 23, 2003

PBS Newshour, As Recovery Uncertainty Remains, Extending Jobless Benefits Debated, July 2, 2010

CNNMoney, Bush signs bill extending jobless benefits, Nov. 21, 2008

The Associated Press, Analysis: How 2 million lost jobless benefits, July 12, 2010

The Washington Post, No extension of unemployment benefits in sight for the long-term jobless, July 13, 2010

Interview with Daniel Hamermesh, economics professor, of the University of Texas at Austin

Daniel Hamermesh, Extending unemployment benefists, July 12, 2010

E-mail interview with Walter Nicholson, economics professor, of Amherst College

Keith Hennessey, Extending unemployment insurance, July 8, 2010

PolitiFact Texas, McConnell proposed extending unemployment benefits using stimulus money, July 11, 2010

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