updated 12/19/2003 2:37:50 PM ET 2003-12-19T19:37:50

Labor unions are trying to pressure President Bush and the GOP-controlled Congress to approve a new extension of federal unemployment benefits. The program expires Saturday because Congress adjourned for the year without extending the benefits.

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An average 90,000 jobless workers each week who exhaust their state benefits after Saturday won't get the extra 13 weeks of federal aid that others have received since March 2002, when Congress first approved the help. Most states provide up to 26 weeks of aid to people who lose their jobs.

"The truth is, there has not been a recovery in the labor market," Chris Owens, public policy director for the AFL-CIO, said Thursday.

The economy is showing signs of a strong recovery, with the unemployment rate falling in recent months to 5.9 percent from a high of 6.4 percent in June.

Layoffs also appear to be easing. On Thursday, the Labor Department reported that new applications for unemployment benefits declined to 353,000, the lowest level since Nov. 1.

Republicans said extending the benefits was not necessary when unemployment is declining.

"It's a question of whether we continue to be in an extraordinary unemployment environment, and we are not," said House Republican Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo.

But the economy isn't creating a lot of new jobs yet. Employers have boosted their payrolls by just 328,000 in the past four months, which worries economists about the strength of the labor market.

About 2.3 million jobs have been lost since President Bush took office. Long-term unemployment last month surpassed a 20-year high. Nearly 24 percent of the jobless, or 2 million people, have been out of work for more than six months, the highest percentage since July 1983.

"There is no justification with what is going on in the jobs market for the president to refuse to extend this jobs program," Owens said.

The White House has sidestepped questions about whether Bush supports another extension.

"We did extend unemployment benefits three times previously," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said last week. "We'll continue to work with Congress on that issue. But I would point out the economy is strengthening."

The AFL-CIO made available laid-off workers who talked about their difficulties in finding new jobs.

"A lot of us don't know where our next meal is coming from," said John Mahoney, 55, of Battle Creek, Mich. He was laid off in December 2002 from an automotive plant, where he had worked for 11 years. He earned $15.07 an hour.

Mahoney's unemployment benefits run out later this month. "I'd like to see you walk a day in my shoes and tell me the same thing in the morning," Mahoney said he would tell Congress and the president.

Congress also left last December without reauthorizing the federal program, also amid Democratic charges that Republicans were ignoring the unemployed just before Christmas. Political pressure prompted Bush, who had remained on the sidelines of the debate, to urge Congress to act quickly.

The program was extended soon after lawmakers returned in January.

Copyright 2003 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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