February 27, 2010 in Nation/World

Bunning hardball blocks unemployment benefits

Kentucky Republican cites need for fiscal discipline
David Lightman And Halimah Abdullah McClatchy
McClatchy Tribune photo

Sen. Jim Bunning, 77, due to retire, gestures during a committee meeting on Capitol Hill on Dec. 17. McClatchy Tribune
(Full-size photo)

WASHINGTON – Some unemployment benefits could dry up Monday. Newly laid-off workers wouldn’t get federal help with health insurance premiums.

Road and transit bills could go unpaid, Medicare payments to doctors would stay high and rural satellite reception could be affected, all thanks to Sen. Jim Bunning’s decision to block legislation that would keep alive a host of programs that expire Sunday night.

The Kentucky Republican, according to several sources, told Democratic colleagues “tough …” Thursday when they tried to get him to change his mind.

The Senate is expected to consider a longer-term extension of the programs Monday, with passage likely next week.

The House of Representatives passed the extension by voice vote, and the Senate was expected to go along. Then along came Bunning, a fiscal conservative, who objected because Congress didn’t pay for the $10 billion bill.

He said lawmakers kept talking about fiscal discipline and the nation was facing a debt crisis. “If we can’t find $10 billion somewhere for a bill that everybody in this body supports,” he said, “we will never pay for anything.”

Supporters argue that the bill is an emergency measure, extending the programs only a month until a longer-term solution can be found.

Democrats across the country were quick to pounce.

“What point are we going to make here? Just how hard we can be, how tough we can be?” asked Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin, D-Ill. “The most vulnerable families in America are going to suffer because of this political decision by one senator.”

Among the provisions set to expire are the flood insurance program, Small Business Administration loans, a change in Medicare payments to doctors, some transportation funding and, most prominently, help for the unemployed.

Most people already getting extra jobless benefits are unlikely to be affected. Those who will feel the impact could include people who have exhausted their 26 weeks of state benefits and qualify for more aid under federal guidelines.

Anyone laid off after March 1 no longer would be able to get federal help to pay health insurance premiums; the program now pays 65 percent of the cost for some workers.

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