Citing deficits, Bunning blocks benefits extensions

February 27, 2010|By James Oliphant and Richard Simon | Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — — Resorting to an old-fashioned, one-man filibuster, Republican Sen. Jim Bunning of Kentucky is blocking an extension of unemployment benefits and health insurance payments for hundreds of thousands of out-of-work Americans because of his concerns over the federal budget deficit.

The programs are set to expire at midnight Sunday, meaning that the Senate's inaction could delay payments.

Democratic and Republican leaders had agreed to pass a one-month extension through a process known as unanimous consent, meaning that no formal vote was required. But Bunning's objection means the bill can't go forward. The extension had been passed by the House and was ready to be signed into law by the president.

Bunning's action outraged Democrats, who battled the Kentuckian on the Senate floor deep into the night Thursday, urging him to give in. On Friday morning, they were at it again, but Bunning held fast.

"The simple fact of the matter is that this is an emergency situation and should be treated as such," said Sen. Richard J. Durbin, an Illinois Democrat.

Bunning has refused to yield as a wave of senators criticized him.

"Thirty days of unemployment. Really?" said Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat. "Have we gotten to the point where this is going to be used as a political football?"

The White House joined in Friday, with spokesman Robert Gibbs saying, "These are the type of games that the American people fail to understand."

Bunning, who is retiring from the Senate at the end of the year, said he was holding up the extension because the bill's sponsors had not identified a way to pay for it or offset it with spending cuts elsewhere.

"If we can't find $10 billion somewhere for a bill that everybody in this body supports, we will never pay for anything," Bunning said Friday.

But Democrats said Bunning voted for tax cuts during the Bush administration that similarly were not offset.

Most Republicans kept their distance. Adding to the awkwardness, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who agreed to the extension, also hails from Kentucky, which has an unemployment rate of 10.7 percent.

The bill would extend benefits provided under last year's economic stimulus measure, including one in which the federal government assumed 65 percent of the cost of COBRA benefits.

The legislative package also extends other key programs, including one for Medicare reimbursement rates. Without the extension, the government beginning Monday would pay doctors who see Medicare patients more than 20 percent less.

In addition, some rural satellite TV subscribers could lose access to local channels. And Rep. James L. Oberstar, the Minnesota Democrat who heads the House Transportation Committee, warned that Bunning's actions threaten federal highway funding, which is authorized by law only through Sunday. Thousands of federal highway workers face furloughs beginning Tuesday, he warned.

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