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Bunning Blocks Emergency Unemployment Benefits Extension

February 25, 2010 - by Donny Shaw

The AP reports on Sen. Jim Bunning’s [R, KY] forced delay of congressional action to extend unemployment insurance benefits (H.R. 4691), which will begin expiring for millions of unemployed Americans on Monday:

The Senate failed late Thursday to extend programs for laid-off workers, jeopardizing unemployment benefits scheduled to expire over the weekend.

The benefits are part of a larger package of government programs, from highway funding to loans for small businesses, set to expire Sunday because senators couldn’t agree on how to pay for an extension.

The House passed a bill Thursday extending the programs for a month while lawmakers consider how to address the issues long-term. Senate Democrats repeatedly tried to follow suit Thursday night but they couldn’t overcome the objections of a single lawmaker, Republican Sen. Jim Bunning of Kentucky, that the $10 billion bill would add to the budget deficit.

The bill would extend subsidies to help laid-off workers pay health premiums through the COBRA program. It would extend funding for highway projects and spare doctors from a 21 percent cut in Medicare payments. It would extend a small business loan program, the National Flood Insurance Program and the copyright license used by satellite television providers.

The Senate adjourned just before midnight with no further votes scheduled until Tuesday. To avoid an interruption in benefits, senators would have to act quickly when they return, a task made difficult by Senate rules that let a single senator slow the process. Bunning vowed to fight the extensions as long as they add to the deficit, though he acknowledged they will probably eventually pass.

Even though unemployment benefits extensions are generally considered non-controversial, every time it has come up in Congress during this recession, Senate Republicans have delayed their passage for several weeks. The last time Congress debated an extension, in October, the Republicans held blocked it for five weeks, despite letting it pass in the end on a unanimous 98-0 vote. It’s about blocking the Democrats’ other legislative priorities, like health care and financial reform. Time is a precious commodity in the Senate, and with the Democrats considering the unemployment extensions “must-pass” items, they present prefect opportunities to the Republicans to stall the whole Senate process.

But I wonder if there is a paradox here: With the unemployment rate so high and so many people relying on UI benefits, the extensions are especially effective bills for the Republicans to use for killing time. But that also means that there are more voters following the UI extensions and feeling bitter about being used for political points. At some point, the constituent backlash must outweigh the political gain. That point will come sooner if the media tells the story truthfully.

Of course, Bunning is a lame duck. He’s not seeking re-election, which is probably why the Republicans are using him to be the mouthpiece for their delay tactics.

The bill is H.R. 4691, the “Temporary Extension Act of 2010.” We should have full data on it and a page on OpenCongress in the morning.

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