Sen. Jim Bunning, the Kentucky Republican who single-handedly blocked a 30-day extension of the stimulus bill's provisions for enhanced unemployment benefits in February, may get a chance to reprise his spoiler role.
On Tuesday, Senate Democrats plan to ask for unanimous consent for yet another temporary extension. All it takes is one senator to object to prevent the Senate from moving forward without have to go through an onerous and time-consuming parliamentary process.
"I think there's concern that we may be in the same situation we were in before, except we don't have the floor time for fighting back against Republicans," said a Senate Democratic aide.
A bill extending enhanced unemployment benefits for the rest of the year is backed up behind health care reconciliation and a two-week break starting after this week. "Although the Senate passed the yearlong extension, they paid for the tax extenders part of that bill with offsets the House set aside for health care," said Judy Conti, a lobbyist for the National Employment Law Project. "Sen. Reid's office has been very clear that the only way they can move it is through unanimous consent."
If anyone objects to unanimous consent for the stopgap measure, there's no time to make it happen before the break -- and on April 5, the previous extension will expire, meaning that people on unemployment will receive letters or robocalls from their state workforce agencies informing them that they will be ineligible for additional "tiers" of benefits they've been counting on.
In February, Bunning objected because the measure wasn't paid for and would add $10 billion to the deficit. He repeatedly pointed out that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) had himself rejected a bipartisan bill by Sen. Max Baucus (R-Mont.) and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) that would have extended benefits for six months. He said "tough shit" when a Democratic senator complained that the Senate was jeopardizing a lifeline for hundreds of thousands of Americans, many of whom received letters informing them their benefits would be cut off because of Congress. Asked for an interview by an ABC News producer, Bunning gave him the finger.
And after he finally relented, to the relief of members of his own party, he complained that he was betrayed by Senate Democrats who promised he'd get a vote on his amendment. So -- considering his strong feelings, will he do it again?
Bunning's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The office of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who brokered a compromise last time, also did not immediately respond.
Conti complained earlier this year that Democrats' strategy of using temporary extensions forces Congress to waste time repeatedly fighting the same fight. "Again we're back to unemployed workers being held hostage to everything else that is going on in D.C... I couldn't have predicted it better. I feel like I jinxed it almost."
The $10 billion measure Democrats plan to introduce would extend by one month eligibility for up to 53 additional weeks of federally-funded tiers of unemployment benefits on top of the 26 weeks that states already provide. It also extends health insurance subsidies for laid-off workers, national flood insurance and increased Medicare payments to doctors.
Reid asked consent for the extension on Friday, but Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) objected, citing the absence of McConnell. "Obviously we will visit with our members on Monday when everybody returns and determine what the appropriate way to proceed on this is," said Kyl. "It doesn't expire until April 5, so there's plenty of time. And we'll be happy to work with the Majority Leader to determine the best course of action to get this complete before April 5. I supported the extension last time, so this is not necessarily based upon a substantive objection, but the need to inquire with our members how they wish to proceed with this."
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