Republicans continued to support Sen. Jim Bunning‘s effort to block an extension of unemployment benefits and other federal funding programs this week, even as a Democratic spokesman called the Kentucky Republican a hypocrite for his stance.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) tried again Tuesday to bring legislation to a vote that would extend unemployment insurance, healthcare benefits for the jobless, as well as federal funding for highway construction and other ongoing federal programs. Bunning once again prevented the bill from coming to a vote.
Without an extension, 400,000 Americans will lose unemployment benefits during the first weeks in March. By May, nearly 3 million people could be left without these benefits, according to a Labor Department estimate.
The Labor Department on Monday released a state-by-state breakdown of the number of individuals who will lose their unemployment benefits in the coming days if Congress fails to extend unemployment insurance benefits.
The House last week unanimously passed a bill to temporarily extend crucial benefits — including unemployment insurance.
Those effected by Bunning’s obstruction complained loudly, as well, including the nation’s physicians for a cut to their Medicare payments.
Bunning says he won’t support the legislation because it would add to the federal deficit but Democrats say he is being disingenuous.
“Senator Bunning’s claim that he’s simply being consistent on fiscal issues is hard to fathom. He had no problem voting for tax cuts for the wealthy and for two wars – both of which weren’t paid for,” says Reid spokesman Jim Manley. “He voted against pay-go spending rules and against the establishment of a deficit commission. He has also, in the past, voted for the extension of unemployment benefits that are financed in the same way as this measure that he’s objecting to.
“One fact remains clear: Senator Bunning’s actions blocked critical funding to millions of out-of-work Americans and caused thousands of workers to be furloughed this week,” Manley adds. “There are no excuses for Senator Bunning to hold this funding hostage, and there is no explanation for the Republican leadership to remain silent on this issue.”
But, Manley says, just like the current legislation Democrats seek to pass, the Baucus-Grassley proposal did not offset the cost of extending the unemployment and COBRA programs.
Further, Bunning joined his Republican colleagues in voting against the Reid amendment to implement Pay-As-You-Go (PAYGO) rules aimed at preventing further deficit spending, Manley says.
Manley wasn’t the only one to lament Bunning’s obstruction.
The influential American Medical Association (AMA) bemoans the fact that by not approving the legislation, Congress has allowed to take effect a 21 percent cut to physician payments for Medicare.
“The AMA is hearing directly from physicians, and seniors should be very concerned about how the Senate’s inaction will impact their ability to see a doctor,” says Dr. J. James Rohack, president of the physicians’ association. “Military families are also hurt as TRICARE ties its payment rates to Medicare.”
TRICARE is the military healthcare coverage program.
The failure to pass the bill also has cut off funding for transportation projects around the country, bringing that work to a halt.
The current extension of the surface transportation program expired on Sunday, leading to a shutdown in reimbursements to states for highway projects and transit programs administered by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and the Federal Transit Administration (FTA). According to FHWA, the shutdown means that $768 million in highway outlays and $157 million in transit outlays for the week ending March 5 could be affected. On Tuesday, an estimated 4,000 federal highway transit and safety personnel must be furloughed, putting a halt to federal project approvals, safety enforcement and transit starts, according to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO).
“The timing could not be worse for a lot of reasons,” says Susan Martinovich, director of the Nevada Department of Transportation and AASHTO vice president. “States need every dollar they can get to improve our aging roads and bridges and put people to work. My home state of Nevada has the nation’s seventh-highest unemployment rate at 10.4 percent. We should be awarding contracts for spring construction right now, but instead many states are forced to delay and in some cases cancel projects. Congress must act quickly to solve this problem.”
The publisher of the news site On The Hill, Scott Nance has covered Congress and the federal government for more than a decade.