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Senate passes jobless aid and road funding. Putting a lone senator's cantankerous challenge behind it, the Senate is back to work on a $100 billion-plus bill reviving popular tax breaks and extending longer and more generous jobless benefits through the end of the year.
Kentucky Republican Jim Bunning relented on Tuesday evening, freeing the Senate to approve stopgap legislation extending for another month a host of programs, including highway funding, health insurance subsidies for the unemployed and benefits for the long-term jobless. That gives Congress time to consider the far larger measure covering most of the same programs.
But the daunting price tag on the longer-term measure guarantees more complications and an even rougher path through the Senate than experienced by the bill passed Tuesday.
Bunning held up action for days, causing the government to furlough highway workers and allowing some unemployment benefits to expire. He wanted to force Democrats to find ways to finance the bill so it wouldn't add to the deficit. But his move sparked a political tempest that subjected Republicans to withering media coverage and cost the party politically.
Bunning's support among Republicans was dwindling, while Democrats used to being on the defensive over health care and the deficit seemed to relish the battle.
Once Bunning gave in, the stopgap bill -- which passed the House last week -- passed the Senate by a 78-19 vote. President Barack Obama signed it into law late Tuesday.
"During these difficult economic times, supporting American workers, their families and our small businesses must be everyone's focus," Obama said in a statement. "I'm grateful to the members of the Senate on both sides of the aisle who worked to end this roadblock to relief for America's working families."
Rather than winning the fight over funding the bill, Bunning eventually settled for a vote to close a tax loophole enjoyed by paper companies that get a credit from burning "black liquor," a pulp-making byproduct, as if it were an alternative fuel. The amendment failed.
Dick Durbin of Illinois, the Senate's No. 2 Democrat, said Bunning was accepting an offer he had rejected for days.
"As a result ... unemployment benefits were cut off for thousands of people across America, assistance for health care was cut off across America, thousands of federal employees were furloughed," Durbin said.
Doctors faced the prospect of a 21 percent cut in Medicare payments, and federal flood insurance programs had also lapsed with Monday's expiration of an earlier stopgap bill that passed late last year.
Democrats promised to retroactively restore unemployment benefits and health care subsidies for the unemployed under the COBRA program. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood ordered furloughed employees back to work Wednesday. (AP)
Bunning bends, accepts deal on jobless benefits. Roll Call reports:
Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) Tuesday night abandoned his one-man filibuster of a one-month extension to unemployment benefits and other programs.
In the end Bunning agreed to a deal allowing him one vote on an amendment to pay for the bill's $10 billion cost. That proposal was offered by Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) last Thursday at the start of his filibuster, but Bunning rejected it because he feared his amendment would not pass.
At 7:45 PM ET, Harry Reid's office released the following statement -- watch Bunning's floor remarks below.
"There has been a lot of attention over the last few days on the stalemate in the Senate. That attention is warranted. People deserve to know what their leaders are doing here - or, in this case, what some refuse to do - and how that affects their lives.
"So now that we've reached an agreement, let's recap briefly what just happened here.
"Nearly a week ago, with unemployment and health benefits about to expire for tens of thousands of out-of-work Nevadans, Democrats tried to extend those benefits for a short time while a longer solution could be worked out. And we offered Republicans an up-or-down vote on their response to this emergency. They said no.
"After days and days of delay, Democrats just now offered Republicans the exact same up-or-down vote on their proposed response to this emergency. This time, they said yes.
"What happened in between? Hardworking Nevadans - people who want to work but can't find a job - lost their lifelines, their economic security and their peace of mind.
"In between the time Republicans rejected a vote on their plan and the time they decided to take that offer,
· Thousands needlessly lost their benefits.
· Highway projects were put on hold and the thousands of men and women working on them were furloughed without pay.
· Lending to small businesses was frozen.
· And the reimbursement rate for doctors who treat our senior citizens was cut by a fifth.
"And for what? For no good reason.
"Republicans had an idea for how to pay for these benefits. We disagreed, but we wanted to give them a vote and let the majority of Senators decide democratically. That's the way this body was built to work.
"But some were more interested in making a partisan point, or scoring political points, even if unemployed Americans were caught in the crossfire.
"If citizens want to know what's clogging up Washington - if they want to know what's standing between them and the help they need - they need to look no further than to the irresponsible stubbornness from the other side - and to the inexcusable silence of those who enabled it."
6:03 PM ET -- Bunning places blanket hold on Obama nominees, Dems may force all night session. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's (D-Nev.) office says that, in addition to placing a notorious hold on unemployment benefits, Sen. Jim Bunning has now placed a blanket hold on all executive-branch appointments, Time's Jay Newton-Small says.
Also, Roll Call reports that Democrats are "hoping to turn the procedural tables" on Bunning, and use Senate rules to break his blockade.
Newly energized Democrats, who believe they have gained the political upper hand thanks to Bunning's one-man crusade against the short-term benefits extension, rejected outright a Republican proposal to allow three votes on pay-fors for the bill before a vote on final passage. Bunning has demanded the measure, which would run for one month at a cost of $10 billion, be paid for.
"We're not having four votes," Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Tuesday following a weekly Conference luncheon in which Democrats rejected the GOP offer. Although Reid and his colleagues are willing to allow one vote on a pay-for -- the original agreement Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) cut last week -- they see no reason to go further in mollifying Bunning.
Although no final decisions have been made, Democrats confirmed it is increasingly likely that Democrats will force Bunning into an actual filibuster of unemployment insurance extension Tuesday night by repeatedly offering up unanimous consent agreements to bring the bill to a vote.
Senate GOP leader says deal will be reached, won't take position on Bunning's block. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said at a press conference Tuesday that he would soon have an agreement with Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) to allow a vote on a bill providing a 30 day extension of enhanced unemployment benefits and subsidized health insurance for laid off workers, among other things.
"We're going to be able to work out a short term extension in the very near future as we're in the process of working on that now," said McConnell. He declined to elaborate, but according to ABCNews, Bunning will agree to allow a vote on the bill in exchange for a vote on an amendment to offset the bill's $10 billion price tag, a deal Bunning previously rejected because the amendment will fail.
According to the National Employment Law Project, 200,000 people will prematurely lose eligibility for extended benefits this week alone. It wouldn't happen if Bunning had not objected to a "unanimous consent" motion for a vote on the bill last Thursday.
Bunning has objected a dozen times since then, even when fellow Republican Sen. Susan Collins (Maine) asked for a vote on the bill on Tuesday morning.
A reporter asked why McConnell, the leader of Republicans in the Senate, has been absent from the Senate floor throughout Bunning's epic block of the bill. A handful of Republicans have praised Bunning, but his fellow Kentuckian McConnell has remained conspicuously silent. He dodged the question.
"We're working on this issue," said McConnell.
So do you agree with Bunning?
"We're in the process of working this out," he said.
-- ARTHUR DELANEY
5:45 PM ET -- "This is what happens when politicians put party philosophy first, and people last," Rep. Kendrick Meek (D-Fla.) said of Bunning's behavior. Republican Florida Gov. Charlie Crist told the Orlando Sentinel he opposes any further delay to unemployment extension, while his primary challenger, tea party darling Marco Rubio, couldn't be reached for comment.
4:08 PM ET -- Bunning championed an unpaid-for $6.6-billion unemployment extension back in 2003, ThinkProgress notes. "This is hopeful news for our most needy families in Kentucky. By approving this legislation we will help those folks who are currently without work continue to make ends meet until they can find new employment," Bunning said at the time.
3:32 PM ET -- Tea Partiers love Bunning, Mother Jones reports. "We're all in support of Sen. Bunning," says Wendy Caswell, the founder of the Louisville Tea Party.
3:09 PM ET -- Bunning: Hill security 'doing a lousy job' protecting me from reporters. Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) wants better protection from Hill reporters in and around Senate-only elevators.
As he boarded an elevator after leaving the Senate floor on Tuesday, reporters asked about his conversation with the Senate Sergeant at Arms. What were they talking about?
"Oh, about being harassed on the elevators," he said.
When ABCNews tried to ask him about his hold on legislation that among other things would extend enhanced unemployment benefits for laid off workers, Bunning became enraged that a reporter would violate the sanctity of the elevator.
"Excuse me! This is a Senators-only elevator!" yelled a steamed Bunning. "Excuse me!"
On Tuesday, Bunning seemed to be joking. He said the Sergeant at Arms, which oversees all security on the Hill, was just checking in with him.
"He was asking about how they were doing, about how the Sergeant at Arms' office was doing," Bunning explained. "I said they were doing a lousy job."
And then the door closed, and down went Bunning.
-- ARTHUR DELANEY
2:03 PM ET -- New comments from Bunning. Via The Hill:
Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) suggested Tuesday afternoon that his block on an emergency benefits bill may be nearing an end.
Bunning told reporters that he may drop his objections to a bill extending unemployment benefits and COBRA health plan subsidies "as soon as possible," possibly meaning today.
"We're working on it," Bunning told reporters in a video captured by ABC News.
1:35 PM ET -- Hits on Bunning keep coming. Here's a new video blasted out by Americans United for Change, an advocacy group aligned with the Democratic congressional leadership. The spot, titled "Beanbag Bunning," plays off the Senator's previous career as a major league pitcher.
1:15 PM ET -- CongressDaily: Deal with Bunning is near. "GOP senators and aides said today the Senate is near a deal that would overcome an objection by Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., to extending a series of expired provisions, including unemployment insurance, without paying for them," CongressDaily reports (subscription required). "Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., said he believed there is an agreement in which Bunning would get a vote on his proposed pay-for to cover the cost of the bill, after which he would allow a quick vote to allow 30-day extensions of the programs. But a senior GOP aide said the deal was not yet finalized. Bunning previously rejected such an arrangement."
1:10 PM ET -- Bunning's homestate paper slams his 'callous grandstanding.' The Lexington Herald-Leader published a scathing editorial today taking on both Bunning and the two Republicans aiming to replace him this November (who both have supported his efforts):
As long as Republicans were in charge, Sen. Jim Bunning was OK with trading a surplus for a deficit. He voted to put two wars, tax cuts and a Medicare drug benefit on the nation's credit card.
Now that Republicans are no longer in charge, Bunning is drawing the line on deficit spending. He's doing it in a way that shows callous contempt for the more than one in 10 working Kentuckians whose jobs disappeared in the economic meltdown.
We've become accustomed to bizarre, egocentric behavior from Bunning. So it wasn't all that surprising when he single-handedly blocked an unemployment benefits extension for a million people, including 119,230 in Kentucky, whose benefits run out this year. About 14,000 Kentuckians will exhaust their benefits in two weeks without the extension.
Bunning's filibuster also denies newly laid-off workers help paying for health insurance. It halts road and bridge projects around the country by furloughing 2,000 federal transportation employees, stops reimbursements to state highway programs and cuts Medicare payments to doctors.
To those who know him, it's not surprising that Bunning answered a Democratic colleague's complaint with a crude profanity. Or that he joked about missing a basketball game while pushing some unemployed Kentuckians into homelessness or bankruptcy.
What is surprising is that Trey Grayson and Rand Paul, the leading Republicans to succeed Bunning, jumped on his one-man band wagon.
1:09 PM ET -- Bunning's block impacts KY Sen race. MSNBC's Mark Murray reports, "GOP Sen. Jim Bunning blocking the extension of unemployment insurance and transportation spending has now spilled over to the Senate race to succeed him."
Democrat Jack Conway, who's running to replace the retiring Bunning, has issued a petition demanding that Bunning end his blockage.
Conway is competing against Lt. Gov. Dan Mongiardo in the Democratic primary, and Mongiardo also has criticized Bunning here. The Republicans in the race are Rand Paul (Ron Paul's son) and Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson, and both are supporting Bunning's block.
1:01 PM ET -- National Flood Insurance Program expires due to Bunning block.
The National Flood Insurance Program expired Sunday night after Congress failed to pass a temporary extension of the program that is vital to protecting homes in the New Orleans area.
The lapse puts home sales at risk and could leave homeowners whose policies were scheduled to renew March 1 in jeopardy in the unlikely event that Monday's rains turned out to be heavy enough to cause flooding.
12:14 PM ET -- Obama to take on Bunning. "White House aides are saying there's a 'strong possibility' President Obama will take on Sen. Jim Bunning during the president's 1230 p.m. ET economic remarks at Savannah Technical College."
12:11 PM ET -- Bunning has another run-in with journalist. CNN's Dana Bash "again tried to get Bunning to comment more extensively on the controversy but the senator emphatically declined."
11:10 AM -- Bunning again blocks jobless benefits. Sen. Jim Bunning has again blocked the Senate from extending unemployment benefits and health insurance subsidies for the jobless.
The Kentucky Republican objected Tuesday 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.
Bunning has been single-handedly blocking the stopgap legislation since Thursday, to the increasing discomfort of Republicans like Collins. Frustrated Democrats have been lobbing attacks at Bunning and his fellow Republicans for days.