Talks under way on jobless benefit deal, senator says |

March 2, 2010 by Post Team 

Talks under way on jobless benefit deal, senator saysTalks under way on jobless benefit deal, senator says | (CNN) — Embattled Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Kentucky, said Tuesday that he is involved in discussions to help end a stalemate over the extension of unemployment benefits for millions of jobless Americans.

Asked whether senators are close to finalizing a deal, Bunning said, “We’re trying.”

The Senate adjourned last week without approving extensions of cash and health insurance benefits for the unemployed after Bunning blocked the measure by insisting that Congress first pay for the $10 billion package.

The extension needed unanimous consent to pass because Democrats have labeled it an emergency spending measure.

Bunning, who is retiring at the end of this year, has said he doesn’t oppose extending the programs; he just doesn’t want to add to the deficit. Democrats argue that, because it is an emergency measure, the bill should not be subject to new rules requiring that legislation not expand the deficit.

As a result of the Senate’s inaction, many jobless people were no longer able to apply for federal unemployment benefits or the COBRA health insurance subsidy as of Monday.

Bunning’s action have created a political firestorm. On Tuesday morning, the Kentucky Republican pushed on the Senate floor for a measure that would pay the $10 billion tab out of the Democrats’ previously passed $862 billion stimulus bill. He also dared Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, to hold a vote to cut off debate on the measure.

Reid rejected Bunning’s motions.

“You have made your point … [but] the majority of the Senate disagrees with you,” Reid said to Bunning. The need to extend unemployment benefits is “an emergency. … Our economy is suffering. [There are] long lines of people out of work.”

Reid called Bunning’s legislative maneuvering “terribly inappropriate” and “very out of line.”

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs chimed in as well.

“This is an emergency situation,” he said. “Hundreds of thousands have been left in the lurch. … I don’t know how you negotiate the irrational.”

Maine GOP Sen. Susan Collins quickly moved to separate herself from Bunning and side with the Democratic leader, noting that the issue is “so important to senators on both sides of the aisle.”

She later said Bunning’s views “do not represent the majority of the Republican caucus.”

“Ideally, we would offset this” spending bill, she said. “But I would support it either way because the programs are emergency programs. It’s a very short-term [one month] extension.”

Bunning in turn called Senate Democrats “hypocritical” for recently passing rules requiring that new legislation not expand the deficit, only to turn around and push both the emergency unemployment extension and a $15 billion jobs bill that, according to Bunning, is not fully paid for.

He read a letter from a constituent in Louisville, Kentucky, praising him for deciding to “stand up to those in Congress who want to do nothing more than to spend the taxpayers’ money.”

“This country is sooner or later going to implode because of the massive amount of debt run up over the past 40 or 50 years,” the letter said, according to Bunning. It is “sheer lunacy” to be “selling our nation’s soul” to creditors such as China.

“Your stance in holding [politicians] to their words … is a refreshing concept in an otherwise corrupt” capital.

Bunning identified the constituent only by the first name of Robert, citing security concerns.

CNN’s Dana Bash noted Tuesday that Democrats could effectively work around Bunning and pass an extension of unemployment benefits. However, she said, the Democrats “know that they have a good political issue right now [and therefore] have no plans to do that in the immediate future.”

Bash also noted that the GOP leadership has a poor relationship with Bunning and is therefore unable to pressure him to back down.

Federal unemployment benefits kick in after the basic state-funded 26 weeks of coverage expire. During the downturn, Congress has approved up to an additional 73 weeks, which it funds.

These federal benefit weeks are divided into tiers, and the jobless must apply each time they move into a new tier.

Because the Senate has not acted, the jobless will now stop getting checks once they run out of their state benefits or current tier of federal benefits.

That could be devastating to the unemployed who were counting on that income. In total, more than a million people could stop getting checks next month, with nearly 5 million running out of benefits by June, according to the National Unemployment Law Project.

Lawmakers have repeatedly tried to approve a 30-day extension, but each time Bunning has prevented the measure from passing.

Several other programs aside from unemployment and health benefits are also affected by the legislative spat, including federal flood insurance, satellite TV licensing, and small business loans.

The stalled bill also would provide a short-term extension of the Highway Trust Fund, which is a federal fund set up to pay for transportation projects nationwide.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said Monday that up to 2,000 employees at the Transportation Department will be sent home without pay as a result of Bunning’s decision to hold up the bill.

“As American families are struggling in tough economic times, I am keenly disappointed that political games are putting a stop to important construction projects around the country,” LaHood said in a news release. “This means that construction workers will be sent home from job sites because federal inspectors must be furloughed.”

According to two Democratic aides on the Senate floor Thursday night, Bunning muttered “tough s—” as Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, criticized Bunning’s stance on the package.

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