- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Senate on Tuesday passed a $10 billion short-term extension of unemployment benefits and other government aid after a Republican senator ended his nearly week-long blockade.

Sen. Jim Bunning, Kentucky Republican, had come under withering fire from Democrats and some Republicans said he single-handedly halted unemployment benefits, federal subsidies for health insurance coverage, payments for doctors who treat Medicare patients and highway construction funding — all of which expired over the weekend. Mr. Bunning had been insisting the Senate find $10 billion elsewhere in the budget to pay for extending those programs.

Late Tuesday, though, he relented and agreed to let the Senate vote on his proposed amendment to pay for the spending by cutting a renewable fuels tax break. That amendment failed and minutes later the Senate voted overwhelmingly to pass the spending bill, 78-19.

“If we cannot pay for a bill that all 100 Senators support, how can we tell the American people with a straight face that we will ever pay for anything?” Mr. Bunning said in offering his amendment.

But Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, said he was voting against Mr. Bunning’s amendment because at this point it was too late to pay for the emergency aid.

He said if the amendment passed, the bill would likely end up in protracted negotiations between the House and Senate, further delaying the government spending.

“What happens to those unemployed people during that period of time? They don’t receive checks,” he said.

Mr. Bunning’s amendment received 43 votes, including three Democrats and one independent, while 53 senators voted against it.

The bill has already passed the House and now heads to President Obama’s desk for his expected signature.

Mr. Bunning warned colleagues he’ll call out those that voted against his proposal and said he’ll be back on every other spending bill to try to force Congress to pay for what it spends, rather than tack it onto what’s already expected to be a record deficit in 2010.

His stance had proved costly for many Republicans, and on Tuesday morning they joined Democratic leaders in trying to force his hand. Sen. Susan Collins, Maine Republican, took to the Senate floor to urge him to cave.

Standing with or against Mr. Bunning’s effort became a litmus test in races across the country this week.

In Florida, Democrats demanded to know whether Republican Senate hopeful Marco Rubio supported Mr. Bunning, while in Kentucky, where Mr. Bunning is not seeking re-election, Democrats and Republicans running for his seat split along party lines.

But Democrats also seemed divided over how best to press their advantage, disagreeing over whether to blame Mr. Bunning solo, or spread blame to the entire Republican conference.

“The obstruction of a single Republican senator,” complained Sen. Patty Murray, Washington Democrat. But some of her colleagues said other Republicans have set the table for Mr. Bunning.

Sen. Sherrod Brown, Ohio Democrat, said Mr. Bunning is “just responding to Republican calls to obstruct.”

“They’ve created an environment in the last year that anyway you can obstruct, that’s a good thing,” he said.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky’s other senator, appeared to just wish the entire issue would go away. At his weekly press briefing he repeatedly ducked reporters’ questions about Mr. Bunning’s effort, and has ignored the matter on the Senate floor, instead attacking Democrats’ health care plans.

But Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican, praised Mr. Bunning for a “courageous stand” and said the point is to try to get the Senate to make tough decisions about priorities and spending.

“This is not emergency spending. It was entirely predictable,” he said.

Jennifer Haberkorn contributed to this report.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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