WASHINGTON — The Department of Transportation furloughed nearly 2,000 employees without pay Monday as the government began to feel the impact of Republican Sen. Jim Bunning's one-man blockage of legislation that would keep a host of federal programs operating.
Bunning's "hold" also affects jobless benefits for thousands of unemployed workers, rural television customers, doctors receiving Medicare payments and others.
Bunning wants the $10 billion price of extending the programs offset by reductions in spending elsewhere in the budget to not drive up the deficit.
Absent that, his objections to proceed with the legislation deny the Senate the "unanimous consent" that Senate rules require for going forward under expedited procedure. The Senate can overcome his objection if 60 of its 100 members vote to do so. So far they haven't, and doing that would take at least four days under Senate rules.
"As American families are struggling in tough economic times, I am keenly disappointed that political games are putting a stop to important construction projects around the country," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement. "This means that construction workers will be sent home from job sites because federal inspectors must be furloughed."
Federal projects shut down include more than $38 million in project funding for Idaho's Nez Perce National Forest and Fernan Lakes Idaho Panhandle National Forest and $86 million for bridge replacements in the Washington, D.C., area. Bunning's home state of Kentucky has no projects affected by his action.
However, nearly 1.2 million unemployed workers, including 14,000 in Kentucky, would lose federal jobless benefits this month if Congress doesn't extend them, according to the National Employment Law Project, a liberal-leaning research group. The U.S. Labor Department estimates that about a third will lose benefits in the first two weeks of the month.
Letting the highway program lapse could mean an estimated 90,000 jobs lost. As many as 2 million families could lose access to local television because a copyright law expired overnight.
States hardest hit by the Monday cutoff, according to the law project, would be California, where an estimated 201,274 people could lose help, and Florida, where the total is an estimated 105,016. Other potential state totals: Georgia, 48,284; Texas, 82,850 and Illinois, 65,431.
Bunning defended his action Monday on the Senate floor:
"If we can't find $10 billion to pay for it, then we're not going to pay for anything. The debt that we have arrived at, even the head of the Federal Reserve Bank, chairman (Ben) Bernanke, said it's unsustainable."
Just weeks ago, Congress passed legislation requiring that most new programs must be paid for rather than adding to the budget deficit. Asked why supporters of these programs don't find a way to pay for them, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said "This is an emergency stopgap."
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky's senior senator, whose relationship with Bunning hasn't always been warm, was unhappy that unemployment benefits were allowed to lapse.
"Senator McConnell supports extending unemployment benefits and is disappointed they have expired," said Robert Steurer, a McConnell spokesman. " . . . However, he hopes this issue is resolved quickly so that Kentuckians who are out of work will have their benefits restored soon."
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., voiced similar sentiments.
"It's hard to argue with a senator who wants to become fiscally responsible, and we should be paying for as much as possible. I respect the right of each senator to hold up major legislation," Graham said. "However, when it comes to unemployment benefits, I don't think it's fair to punish people who've already lost their jobs. You have to be realistic sometimes. The money is running out.
"For people who have lost their jobs, unemployment benefits may be the only income they've got. . . . I'm willing to move forward to help them."
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Bunning's latest maneuvering is part of a broader problem in recent years in the Senate. "We can't even get an emergency extension of health and unemployment benefits for those whose benefits expired at midnight," Gibbs said Monday.
The Senate will act Tuesday at the earliest, but approval is likely to be delayed until later in the week. The Senate is now considering a different version of the extension, one that's expected to attract several amendments that could slow it down. Once the Senate passes the measure, it still must pass the House of Representatives.
Democrats pounced on both Bunning and his party for "obstructionist politics." Bunning, 78, a former Hall of Fame pitcher, isn't running for a third Senate term. Kentucky Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo, a Democratic candidate for Bunning's seat, pledged to hold a protest rally if unemployment benefits aren't restored. Mongiardo also encouraged Kentuckians to call Bunning's offices to complain.
Meanwhile, Kentucky Republican Rand Paul's Senate campaign will hold a supportive rally Tuesday afternoon in front of Bunning's Lexington, Ky., office.
(James Rosen and Margaret Talev contributed to this article from Washington.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow the latest politics news at McClatchy's Planet Washington
McClatchy Newspapers 2010