Senate votes to revive programs after Bunning relents

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 2, 2010 

WASHINGTON — By a vote of 78 to 19, the Senate Tuesday night passed funding to revive government programs that aid jobless people, highway projects and other initiatives that had shut down for nearly 48 hours because of Sen. Jim Bunning's increasingly unpopular one-man stand against the measure.

The deadlock ended Tuesday when the Kentucky Republican relented, as he faced growing pressure not only from angry constituents but also from Senate colleagues from both parties.

The House of Representatives passed the measure last week, and once signed by President Barack Obama, $10 billion can be spent to keep most of the programs operating for about a month.

Bunning wanted the provisions paid for, but other senators said these were emergency measures and didn't need to be offset.

The pressure on Bunning steadily grew. On Tuesday, the Senate spent most of the day debating the measure — with most senators, including some from his own party, pleading for him to drop his objection.

Tuesday evening, he did.

"I hope Senate Democrats tonight vote for their own pay-fors and show Americans that they are committed to fiscal discipline," Bunning said. "I will be watching them closely and checking off the hypocrites one by one."

One of Tuesday night's procedural votes focused on Bunning's amendment to offset the $10 billion price tag of the Democrat-backed 30-day-extension of funding for jobless benefits and other government initiatives. That effort failed.

Later this week, there will be two additional votes on his proposals to offset the costs of a longer-term benefits bill.

Earlier, Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, along with other Republicans, joined Democrats in publicly urging Bunning to end his objection, which had resulted in nearly 2,000 Department of Transportation employees being furloughed without pay Monday and which affects jobless benefits for thousands of unemployed workers, rural television customers, doctors receiving Medicare payments and others.

Bunning stressed that he supports the programs and criticized Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and other Democrats for not sticking to recently passed "pay-go" provisions, which require paying for many new programs with readily available funds rather than additional borrowing.

Reid countered that Bunning was scarcely concerned about debt during the Bush administration.

"He wasn't too worried about this during the eight years of the Bush administration, when two wars were unpaid for; all these tax cuts, these 2.5 trillion of dollars," Reid said.

The White House offered a forceful, if exasperated, response.

"This is an emergency situation. This is a situation where, as I said, hundreds of thousands of people are left in the lurch as a result of what happened in our economy," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Tuesday. "The Senate has even offered to have a vote on what Senator Bunning wants to do, and the person that objected was Senator Bunning.

"I don't know how you negotiate with the irrational. I don't know how you prevent one person from deciding that they hold in the palm of their hand the livelihood of hundreds of thousands that have lost their jobs and as a result have lost their health care. What it's simply going to mean is . . . more people are simply going to need help. It's an argument that I and others fail to understand."

Among the provisions that expired Sunday at midnight are the flood insurance program, Small Business Administration loans, a change in Medicare payments to doctors, some transportation funding and, most prominently, help for the unemployed.

Most people who already are getting extra jobless benefits are unlikely to be affected. Those who will feel the impact could include people who've exhausted their 26 weeks of state benefits and qualify for more aid under federal guidelines.

Anyone laid off after March 1 no longer was able to get federal help to pay health insurance premiums; the program pays 65 percent of the cost for certain workers.

Letting the highway program lapse could have meant an estimated 90,000 jobs lost.

A number of protests in support of and against Bunning's actions took place Tuesday in his home state, where 14,000 Kentuckians would have lost federal jobless benefits this month if Congress hadn't extended them, according to the National Employment Law Project.

Bunning and his fellow Kentuckian Mitch McConnell, the Senate Minority Leader, both voted against the funding extension Tuesday night.

Bunning's often had a contentious relationship with the Republican leadership, especially McConnell.

Bunning isn't running for a third term, and his decision a year ago not to seek re-election brought to a close a months-long saga that had pitted the 78-year-old Hall of Fame pitcher against those who urged him to step aside for the good of the party.

McConnell had stopped short of publicly wading into the fray. However, during a news conference Tuesday, he indicated that the party was close to resolving the matter.

"We're in the process of working on that now," McConnell said.

(Margaret Talev contributed to this article.)

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