- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Anxious senators found an escape route late Tuesday from the devastating political crossfire brought on by a single Republican’s near weeklong blockade that held up the extension of already-expired unemployment benefits and other federal aid.

As Democrats took to the airwaves and halls of Congress to list the number of transportation workers who will be laid off or the number of unemployed whose government checks have stopped, Republican senators begged Sen. Jim Bunning - the Kentucky Republican who has been leading the blockade - to cave.

By Tuesday evening, both sides had finalized a path forward that gave Mr. Bunning a vote on his amendment to pay for the $10 billion in government aid, then set up a vote on final passage later Tuesday night.

Mr. Bunning’s amendment was expected to fail, but the overall bill was expected to be passed easily and sent to the president for his signature.

“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.

He promised to offer similar amendments to every spending bill.

But Democrats and many Republicans said the temporary government aid is an emergency situation, and that there’s no need to find offsetting spending cuts now. They also said Mr. Bunning’s amendment would have forced a prolonged House-Senate negotiating session on a final bill, which would only delay the aid.

Since Thursday, Mr. Bunning has been blocking a $10 billion bill to extend for 30 days current highway spending, unemployment benefits, federal aid for health insurance under the COBRA program and higher reimbursements for doctors who take Medicare patients. Those programs had been operating under a temporary extension that ran out this weekend.

Mr. Bunning is demanding the Senate cut $10 billion elsewhere to pay for the measure, and has proposed changing a renewable fuels tax break to pay for it. He said Democrats are breaking rules they agreed to less than a month ago that new spending be offset by other cuts or tax increases.

But some Republicans were just as eager to see the measure passed, and they joined with Democratic leaders to try to force Mr. Bunning to back down this week.

“It’s imperative we move forward on this bill,” Sen. Susan Collins, Maine Republican, told reporters hours after she tried to force Mr. Bunning’s hand on the Senate floor. She said she had wanted to make clear that not all of the GOP stands with the Kentuckian, and said a number of senators backed her effort.

Mr. Bunning had to keep a vigil on the Senate floor this week to object any time Democrats try to bring up the bill. That’s allowed under Senate rules because Democrats are trying to pass the bill by unanimous consent, rather than go through the regular channels.

Democrats could have worked around Mr. Bunning, using parliamentary tactics to force a final vote on the bill, but Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, was reluctant to go that route, saying he shouldn’t have to force the Senate to devote so much time to overcome the obstinacy of one senator.

“I’ll defend him on a lot of things but not on this. He’s very out of line,” Mr. Reid said.

The main phone line in Mr. Bunning’s Washington office rang without answer Monday afternoon and was repeatedly busy Tuesday, as his office was flooded with comments.

A spokesman said comments were more positive Tuesday than they were Monday, though he didn’t have an exact count.

Mr. Bunning has been blasted for making an obscene gesture to reporters and on Tuesday was overheard scolding the Senate sergeant at arms for what the senator said was a “lousy” job by the police of managing aggressive reporters or staff.

Democrats, with a mixture of sorrow and political glee, listed the states where the lack of federal money would hit hardest by the end of unemployment benefits and the suspension of highway funding.

Standing with or against Mr. Bunning’s effort has become a litmus test in races across the country.

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,” said 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 any way you can obstruct, that’s a good thing,” he said.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, appeared to just wish the entire issue would disappear. 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.

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.

c Jennifer Haberkorn contributed to this report.

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