Bunning Blocks Unemployment Extension
A single Senator has blocked a routine measure that would extend unemployment benefits to 1.1 million people.
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 unemployment payments to laid-off workers and provide them with subsidies to help 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.
Bunning said his only objection to the bill is its impact on the deficit. He proposed paying for the extensions with unspent money from the massive economic recovery package enacted a year ago, but Democrats objected. “I believe we should pay for it,” Bunning said. “I’m trying to make a point to the people of the United States of America.”
CBS headlines this story “Unemployment Extension Fails in Senate,” demonstrating the perils of the passive voice. Indeed, even the “senators couldn’t agree” business is terribly misleading. Despite genuine partisan divide over how to fund this extension, it would have passed by routine unanimous consent absent Bunning’s shenanigans.
I’m quite sympathetic to Bunning’s suggestion that we should use the stimulus money to pay for this. Indeed, it’s hard to come up with a more direct stimulus package than giving money directly to citizens most hard-hit by the recession. But is that really a principle worth bringing the show to a halt over?
The Senate’s arcane rules, which allow a dedicated minority — and sometimes, a single senator — to slow the train are an important if extraconstitutional check on undertaking radical change with a slim majority. Unfortunately, they’re increasingly being abused over matters of personal pique or routine legislation. Gentleman’s agreements simply don’t work if the participants don’t conduct themselves as gentlemen.