Sen. Jim Bunning continues to object to extending unemployment benefits. On Monday, the Kentucky Republican once again prevented a vote on a bill that would extend eligibility for enhanced unemployment benefits and subsidized health insurance for laid-off workers by 30 days.
If Congress fails to pass an extension, the National Employment Law Project estimates that 1.2 million people will lose their benefits in March. Bunning's action could cause thousands of people to miss their unemployment checks starting this week, though it's likely that Congress will pass an extension within the next two weeks that will retroactively cover their losses.
The bill under consideration would provide a stop-gap 30 day extension for several other expiring laws, including funding for highway projects that employed 2,000 people until Monday, improved Medicare reimbursement rates (known as "doc fix"), flood insurance, and licensing that allows satellite TV providers to carry local channels in rural areas where they are unavailable with an antenna.
Reid asked for unanimous consent to move forward with the bill on Monday.
"Six times last week, Democrats asked to extend their unemployment benefits for a short time while they work on a longer extension," Reid said. "Six times, Republicans said no. They didn't just say no to us, that is members of the Senate. They said no to their families in their own states and all our states count on us to act when we need action. They count on us to respond in the event of an emergency. This is an emergency. The Republicans in the Senate are standing between these families and the help they need while these benefits expire and expired."
After Reid spoke, Bunning raised his objection and blamed the Democrats for failing to extend benefits with an earlier bill that Reid scrapped. He repeated his insistence that the Senate not add an additional $10 billion to the deficit.
"Just a brief explanation of why we are where we're at with this extension bill, the brief extension of 30 days," said Bunning, who is not running for reelection and apparently not acting with the blessing of GOP leadership. "There was an agreement between the majority leader of the Finance Committee and the minority leader in the Finance Committee, Sens. Baucus and Grassley, on a three-month extension of these very same provisions. There were more provisions in the bill also. It cost a little more than the the $10 billion that is asked for because it was a three-month extension. Senator Reid pulled that bill from the floor of the U.S. Senate. He did it. The leader of the Democrats pulled that bill from the floor. I support extending unemployment benefits, COBRA benefits, flood insurance, highway bill fix, doc fix, small business loans, distant network television for satellite viewers. If we can't find $10 billion to pay for something that we all support, we will never pay for anything on the floor of this U.S. Senate."
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Democrats are using the holdup to hammer Bunning and the Republican party. Congressional Democrats, along with Vice President Joe Biden, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, and White House spokesman Robert Gibbshave all condemned the holdup.
Even if Senate Democrats get around Bunning and pass an extension this week, some recipients of unemployment benefits could miss a check. Before last week, workforce agencies in some states were already sending out letters notifying recipients that they would be ineligible for any of the federally-funded "tiers" of additional benefits provided by the stimulus bill. Eligibility for those benefits ended on Feb. 28; the bill under consideration would push the deadline back to April 5.
A Democratic aide said Reid would move forward this week with a larger measure that would extend unemployment and COBRA benefits for the rest of the year. Reid could file for cloture tomorrow, a process that will eat up time but won't allow a single senator to block progress of the widely-supported measure.
Judy Conti, a lobbyist for the National Employment Law Project, said that the legislation would retroactively pay UI recipients. But how long will it take? "If you're already unemployed for more than six months," she said, "odds are you're living at the margins already with no room for error."
In an off-camera exchange on Monday, ABC News reported, "when Senate producer Z. Byron Wolf spotted Bunning exiting his office, Bunning said, 'I'm not talking to anybody.' When Wolf asked him to stay and talk to our cameras, Bunning walked toward the elevator and shot the middle finger over his head."
Later, Bunning showed some anger when ABC News tried to ask him about his objection. "Excuse me, this is a Senate-only elevator," he said. "Excuse me!"
UPDATE 5:30 PM: Senate Democrats have put a video of Bunning's first objection today on YouTube: