Senate Passes Jobless Bill
WASHINGTON - A last-minute deal Tuesday night broke a four-day Senate stalemate engineered by Sen. Jim Bunning that threatened the extension of unemployment and health insurance benefits nationwide.
The Senate overwhelmingly passed the short-term extension, which the Kentucky Republican had held up since last week, on a vote of 78-19. Bunning and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., voted against it.
But Bunning - who insists that the Senate should find a way to pay for the benefits and not simply add the cost to the burgeoning federal budget deficit - suggested in a floor speech that he isn't done.
He said he plans to try to amend another bill containing a longer extension of benefits. And "I will be back on future spending bills," he said.
The extension approved Tuesday night runs through the end of the month. But the bill to authorize the longer extension, through the end of the year, is making its way through the Senate.
Despite open rebellion against him among fellow Republicans, Bunning held fast until late in the day, arguing that if Congress wouldn't agree to pay for the extensions he would not back down.
Finally, in early evening, Bunning agreed to relinquish his objection to the bill in exchange for a vote to pay for the extensions.
Bunning's proposal would have found the money by barring a byproduct of the pulp and paper process from being eligible for a tax credit. His effort to amend the bill was rejected on a 53-43 vote.
"We must bring an end to the out-of-control spending, and there is no better time than now," Bunning argued before the vote.
But Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said Bunning had caused needless anxiety among the unemployed and had taken up the Senate's time.
"A week has been wasted," Durbin said.
The extended unemployment benefits expired Sunday - a situation that ultimately could have affected a million Americans if the matter were not resolved - and Bunning's repeated objections to passing emergency legislation clearly were testing the patience of his GOP colleagues.
After the Senate convened Tuesday morning, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, sought unanimous consent of the Senate to pass the unemployment benefits extensions "on my own behalf and on behalf of numerous members of the Republican caucus who have expressed concerns to me."
She added: "I hope that we can act together for the American people and, again, I want to emphasize that this issue is so important to senators on both sides of the aisle."
But Bunning, as he did Thursday, Friday and Monday, initially refused to lift his objection, saying the emergency bill should be paid for through spending reductions elsewhere so that it does not add to the budget deficit. Under Senate rules, Bunning's objection was enough to stop the bill from proceeding.
"The question I've been asked mostly is, 'Why now?' Well, why not now?" Bunning said. "We want a country that my 40 grandchildren have the same abilities that I did growing up. We want a country that don't owe everybody in the world for our existence."
During the morning session, Bunning's Kentucky colleague, McConnell, didn't acknowledge the burgeoning dispute around him, instead delivered prepared remarks on health care reform.
McConnell and Bunning have a strained relationship. Bunning blames McConnell for forcing him to give up a bid for re-election to a third term this year.
Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., urged Bunning to reconsider his opposition.
"His point has been made. It's been adequately made," Reid said. "It's more than meets the eye. We have people lined up all over the country at unemployment lines that wouldn't be there but for this."
During the impasse, Bunning accused Democrats of hypocrisy for voting to approve legislation that requires spending bills to be offset with spending cuts or tax increases, then ignoring it in the case of the benefits bill.
But the "pay-as-you-go" law, signed by President Barack Obama on Feb. 12, contains numerous exemptions. Among those are Medicare, Social Security and annual adjustments such as the Medicare payments to physicians. Also not covered by the law are direct spending items in the annual federal spending bills and emergency measures - which would include the benefits bill.
Bunning and the Senate Republicans all voted against the pay-as-you-go legislation.
About 2,000 federal transportation workers have had to be furloughed because the bill includes federal highway funding, according to the Federal Highway Administration.