After declining to engage on the issue for months, President Bush changed course Saturday and said extending unemployment benefits for laid-off workers is so urgent it should be "a first order of business" for the new Congress.
About 750,000 of America's jobless are due to stop getting unemployment checks three days after Christmas, with more to lose benefits after that.
As part of an economic stimulus package passed in March, Congress approved a 13-week extension in federal unemployment aid, which runs out Dec. 28, for people who have exhausted the 26 weeks of payments they typically can receive through states. But the Republican-controlled House and Democratic-run Senate adjourned at an impasse over how much longer to continue federal benefits and to whom.
Democrats, hoping in part to pin blame on Mr. Bush for the sputtering economy, had repeatedly urged him to use his clout to break the logjam. But he did not do so until his weekly radio address, more than three weeks after Congress adjourned for the year.
"These Americans rely on their unemployment benefits to pay for the mortgage or rent, food and other critical bills," the president said. "They need our assistance in these difficult times and we cannot let them down."
"Yahoo - that's great!" exclaimed Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., who is from the Pacific Northwest where unemployment has been the highest in the nation. She had pleaded for extended benefits in the Democrats' weekly radio address Dec. 7.
"I definitely wish the president would have pushed the Congress on this earlier," she said. "We would have people having a much merrier Christmas."
In the Democratic radio appearance Saturday, Rep. Robert Menendez of New Jersey blamed the delay in new benefits on Mr. Bush and his fellow Republicans. Those losing their checks "will not benefit from the president's 'compassionate conservatism' this holiday season," he said.
Mr. Bush's new tack on unemployment insurance caps more than a week of White House efforts to show the president is a hardworking steward of the economy who understands the financial malaise being felt in many homes.
He dismissed his top economic advisers and announced their replacements, as well as his nominee to head the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Mr. Bush reviewed those moves in his address, and delivered a newly dire assessment of the nation's economic challenges - including recent figures showing the national unemployment rate shooting up to 6 percent in November.
The president hopes to avoid the voter backlash that could come if he is seen as ignoring problems at home while war in Iraq dominates his agenda.
Some congressional sources also have said the administration was considering signing on to proposals such as the unemployment benefits extension as a way of attracting Democratic support for an economic stimulus and tax-cutting package Mr. Bush plans to unveil early next year.
But Menendez said the country has lost more than 2 million private-sector jobs, unemployment has risen and retirement accounts have declined along with the stock market during Mr. Bush's two years in office.
"These facts are crystal clear, and the administration's policies are at fault," said Menendez, the newly elected chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. "We Democrats want to put more money in the hands of working individuals and families, not more in the hands of those fortunate enough to only have to worry about how much their fortune has diminished."
Mr. Bush said he already has pressed congressional leaders to act on fresh unemployment aid, and said benefits should be approved retroactively - so those who lose aid later this month eventually will be made whole.
"The last Congress left behind some unfinished business," he said. "When our legislators return to the Capitol (in January), I ask them to make the extension of unemployment benefits a first order of business."
The Senate's $5 billion plan would have extended benefits an additional 13 weeks for people currently receiving them. The House passed a more modest, $900 million plan of five extra weeks for workers in a few states with high unemployment rates.
Throughout the debate, Mr. Bush stayed on the sidelines. For months, the White House deflected questions on the issue by stressing his preference that Congress pass other items to fight unemployment and create jobs.
Only after efforts on Capitol Hill collapsed and Congress adjourned did White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the president had wanted an agreement and was disappointed by the lack of action.