By Andrew Taylor
Washington — With a Senate impasse causing federal furloughs and threatening the unemployment benefits of thousands, the top Republican on Tuesday predicted quick passage of a stopgap measure to extend help for the unemployed and keep federal highway dollars flowing.
Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said he is working with Democrats to set up a vote to pass the legislation, which has been single-handedly held up by Sen. Jim Bunning, his home-state GOP colleague. Bunning has been blocking the bill because it would add $10 billion to the budget deficit.
“We’re going to be able to work out the short-term extension in the very near future and we’re in the process of working on that now,” McConnell said.
A law that provided stopgap road money and longer and more generous unemployment benefits and health insurance subsidies for the jobless expired Monday. Without the extension, hundreds of thousands of jobless people could lose federal benefits.
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. The measure would also extend highway programs and prevent a big cut in Medicare payments to doctors.
When asked Tuesday if Bunning was hurting the Republican Party, Collins said, “He’s hurting the American people.”
Bunning has been blocking the stopgap legislation since Thursday, which is frustrating Republicans such as Collins. She said some 500 people from her state alone would lose their unemployment benefits this week, while doctors will soon have to absorb a 21 percent cut in their Medicare reimbursements.
Frustrated Democrats have been lobbing criticism at Bunning and his fellow Republicans for days. Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., implored Bunning to relent and allow a vote.
Reid said that Republicans are pressing him for four votes related to the measure and ways to pay for it without increasing the deficit. Bunning wants to use leftover money from last year’s stimulus measure.
Reid said, however, that he’s willing to grant Bunning one vote.
Democrats are also reaping political gains by attacking Bunning and his fellow Republicans. Major cable news networks carried Tuesday’s proceedings live, and two other members of the Democratic leadership, Charles Schumer of New York and Patty Murray of Washington, came to the floor to attack Republicans for blocking the legislation.
“Today we have a clear cut example to show the American people just what’s wrong with Washington, D.C.,” Murray said. “That is because today one single Republican senator is standing in the way of the unemployment benefits of 400,000 Americans.”
According to the Transportation Department, 2,000 agency workers have been furloughed with the lapse of highway money. They’re likely to be awarded back pay once the program is revived.
Democrats want to pass the measure with the unanimous permission of all senators, a common tactic to speed noncontroversial measures through the Senate. Otherwise it could take almost a week to slog through the procedural steps required to take up the measure and defeat Bunning’s filibuster.
Meanwhile, Reid has called up 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.