Updated below: The Senate has now recessed for the weekend without taking action.
Jim Bunning, a Republican from Kentucky, is single-handedly blocking Senate action needed to prevent an estimated 1.2 million American workers from prematurely losing their unemployment benefits next month.
As Democratic senators asked again and again for unanimous consent for a vote on a 30-day extension Thursday night, Bunning refused to go along.
And when Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) begged him to drop his objection, Politico reports, Bunning replied: "Tough shit."
Bunning says he doesn't oppose extending benefits -- he just doesn't want the money that's required added to the deficit. He proposes paying for the 30-day extension with stimulus funds. The Senate's GOP leadership did not support him in his objections.
And at one point during the debate, which dragged on till nearly midnight, Bunning complained of missing a basketball game.
"I have missed the Kentucky-South Carolina game that started at 9:00," he said,
"and it's the only redeeming chance we had to beat South Carolina since they're the only team that has beat Kentucky this year.
The unemployment rate in Kentucky is 10.7 percent.
The stakes are enormous: provisions of last year's stimulus bill that allow extra weeks of unemployment benefits and COBRA health coverage are set to expire on Feb. 28. State workforce agencies have already sent out letters informing recipients that they'll be ineligible for extra "tiers" of benefits starting next month. The National Employment Law Project estimates that 1.2 million people will prematurely lose benefits in March.
Judy Conti, a lobbyist for the NELP, said that even when Bunning is eventually thwarted and the extension is passed, state governments will still have to deal with the extra administrative costs of shutting down and restarting the extended benefits programs.
"Once the program is retroactively reauthorized, the federal government is going to send the same amount of money, but his own state government is going to have to spend even more money," Conti said.
"What happened last night was an absolute disgrace. There is a time and a place a purpose for debate on deficit reduction, but you don't make your stand on the back of the unemployed. It is ill-informed, counter productive and just cruel."
Daily Kos produced a video of Bunning's obstruction:
UPDATE 12:00 PM -- Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) made a last-minute attempt on Friday morning to get Bunning to let the Senate move forward with extending benefits.
"We talk a lot in the Senate about procedure. Our debate sometimes relates only to procedure. And often that's appropriate," Reid said. "And, as we know, sometimes these procedural rules we have in the Senate are complex. But the issue before us today is not something that's arcane, very ritualistic or complex. It's very simple. And it's clear -- clear that it's going to be a lot more noticeable by people Monday morning, because it's going to affect the lives of thousands of Americans and their livelihoods.
"By Monday morning tens of thousands of Nevadans and more than one million Americans who rely on unemployment insurance and health benefits will simply lose them."
(The National Employment Law Project estimates that 1.2 million people will lose their benefits over the course of March, not at all once on Monday.)
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) took the floor after Reid to stick up for Bunning. He noted that there is broad bipartisan support for extending benefits, but said Bunning was right to take a stand against adding $10 billion to the deficit. He also pointed out that the jobs bill that Reid scrapped two weeks ago, crafted by Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Max Baucus (D-Mont.), contained an extension of UI and COBRA.
"I admire the courage of the junior senator from Kentucky," he said. "Somebody has to stand up finally and say, 'No more inter-generational theft!'"
And with that, the Senate adjourned for the weekend.