WASHINGTON – The Senate on Tuesday passed a $10 billion measure to maintain unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless and provide stopgap funding for highway programs after a holdout Republican dropped stalling tactics that had generated a Washington firestorm.
Kentucky Republican Jim Bunning had been holding up action for days but conceded after pressure intensified with Monday’s cutoff of road funding and extended unemployment benefits and health insurance subsidies for the jobless.
Bunning wanted to force Democrats to find ways to finance the bill so that it wouldn’t add to the deficit, but his move sparked a political tempest that subjected Republicans to withering media coverage and cost the party politically. Bunning’s support among Republicans was dwindling, while Democrats used to being on the defensive over health care and the deficit seemed to relish a battle that could reinforce their argument that Republicans are bent on obstruction of President Barack Obama’s agenda at any cost.
The bill passed by a 78-19 vote and Obama signed it into law late Tuesday.
“During these difficult economic times, supporting American workers, their families and our small businesses must be everyone’s focus,” the president said in a statement. “I’m grateful to the members of the Senate on both sides of the aisle who worked to end this roadblock to relief for America’s working families.”
The bill passed the House last week.
Doctors faced the prospect of a 21 percent cut in Medicare payments, and federal flood insurance programs had lapsed with Monday’s expiration of an earlier stopgap bill that passed late last year.
Tuesday’s action will provide a monthlong extension of the expired programs to give Congress time to pass a yearlong — and far more costly — fix that’s also pending.
Without the legislation, about 200,000 jobless people would have lost federal benefits this week alone, according to the liberal-leaning National Employment Law Project. Jobless people normally get 26 weeks of unemployment benefits and 20 more weeks in states with higher unemployment rates. The legislation extends several additional layers of benefits added since 2008 because of the stubborn recession.
Earlier on Tuesday, Bunning objected to a request by Maine Sen. Susan Collins, a fellow Republican, to pass a 30-day extension of jobless benefits and other expired measures.
When asked Tuesday if Bunning was hurting the Republican Party, Collins said, “He’s hurting the American people.”
Other Republicans were more diplomatic in their assessments of Bunning, who has a stubborn and often irascible personality. Bunning is reluctantly retiring at the end of the current term and enjoys a tense relationship with home-state colleague and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who had taken behind-the-scenes steps to make it harder for Bunning to seek re-election.
Bunning had blocked the stopgap legislation since Thursday, insisting that Democrats find offsetting revenues or spending cuts to finance the bill. Instead, he settled for a vote to close a tax loophole enjoyed by paper companies that get a credit from burning “black liquor,” a pulp-making byproduct, as if it were an alternative fuel. The amendment failed.
Dick Durbin of Illinois, the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat, said that Bunning was accepting an offer that he had rejected for days.
“As a result … unemployment benefits were cut off for thousands of people across America, assistance for health care was cut off across America, thousands of federal employees were furloughed,” Durbin said.
Democrats had promised to force Bunning to repeatedly lodge objections to bringing the bill to a vote. Otherwise it could take almost a week to slog through the procedural steps required to take up the measure and defeat Bunning’s filibuster.
“Today we have a clear-cut example to show the American people just what’s wrong with Washington, D.C.,” Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said. “That is because today one single Republican senator is standing in the way of the unemployment benefits of 400,000 Americans.”
Democrats promised to retroactively restore unemployment benefits and health care subsidies for the unemployed under the COBRA program. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood ordered furloughed employees back to work Wednesday.
The impasse had led to political gains for Democrats attacking Bunning and his fellow Republicans. Major cable news networks carried Tuesday morning’s proceedings live and returned to the topic frequently.
Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has called up a $100-billion-plus measure to provide a longer-term extension of unemployment benefits that would last through the end of the year, along with a full-year extension of higher Medicare payments to doctors, help for states with their Medicaid budgets and a continuing a variety of expired tax breaks for individuals and businesses.
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