Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) stood firm Tuesday in single-handedly blocking the Senate from extending unemployment benefits, highway funds and other programs in the face of mounting criticism from Democrats and pleas from his own party.
Bunning objected to a request from Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) to pass a 30-day extension of the measures, then defended his stand in a debate with Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.).
“I want to extend those provisions just as bad as the leader does,” he said. “But we need to pay for them.”
Other Republicans sought to use the Senate’s morning business period to change the subject, but several Democrats hammered away at Bunning’s use of Senate rules to prevent approval of the stopgap legislation since Thursday.
“One single Republican senator is standing in the way of unemployment benefits for 400,000 Americans,” Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said on the Senate floor. She said Bunning’s stand is also blocking COBRA health insurance benefits to 500,000 Americans, forcing doctors to take a 21 percent cut on Medicare reimbursement rates and preventing the extension of critical highway funds.
Hundreds of thousands of unemployed workers faced an end to their jobless benefits Monday, and the federal government furloughed about 2,000 employees without pay, as a result of Bunning’s efforts to block legislation that would fund $10 billion in federal programs.
Lawmakers failed to reach an agreement last week on tax credits, unemployment benefits and a short-term extension of the Highway Trust Fund. Bunning derailed the bill on Thursday when it came to the floor for unanimous approval, withholding his consent.
“If we can’t find $10 billion to pay for something we all support, we will never pay for anything on the floor of this US Senate,” Mr. Bunning said.
“The bottom line is that Senator Bunning wants to renew these important programs,” spokesman Mike Reynard said. However, the senator “feels very strongly that we can’t keep adding to the debt.”
Now, the Senate is likely to pass a larger package, but not until later this week.
The bill Bunning opposes would extend provisions that were included in last year’s stimulus package, including one in which the federal government assumed 65 percent of the cost of COBRA health benefits. It would perpetuate other key programs, including one that would keep Medicare reimbursement rates at current levels.
Currently unemployed workers can continue to collect benefits for up to 99 weeks, or about $33,000 total.
In January this year, less than one month ago President Obama urged the legislature to pass laws that would require washington to pay for the bills they pass. Calling it common sense.