GOP Sen. Bunning Blocks Unemployment Benefits Extension

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 s—-” Thursday when they tried to get him to change his mind.

Friday afternoon, Bunning’s regional offices in Hazard and Louisville received bomb threats, according to the Kentucky State Police. Police said they evacuated the premises, and searched the area with dogs, but found nothing.

Bunning spokesman Mike Reynard said phones in all of Bunning’s offices have been “ringing off the hook all day. I think a lot of people are upset but there have been some positive calls.”

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.”

“More than 200,000 people here in California stand to lose their unemployment benefits when they need them most,” said John Burton, the chairman of the California Democratic Party. “… Republicans running for Senate here in California ought to state clearly that they are opposed to this callous action and let voters know where they stand when it comes to helping Californians in need.”

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’ve 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 certain workers.

Rural television watchers could be affected because the bill would extend the copyright used by satellite television companies.

This isn’t Bunning’s first brush with colorful verbal gaffes.

Last year, he cursed at reporters during a telephone press call and refused to release the results of an internal political poll. The results are “none of your g—d—- business,” he said.

That same year, he said U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was being treated for pancreatic cancer, would be dead by year’s end. He apologized for the statement.

During the 2004 campaign, Bunning said that Democratic challenger Daniel Mongiardo, then a state senator and now Kentucky’s lieutenant governor, looked “like one of Saddam Hussein’s sons.” Mongiardo is an Italian-American. Bunning later apologized for the statement.

Bunning isn’t running for a third term, and his decision brought to a close a months-long saga that pitted the 77-year-old Hall of Fame pitcher against Republican leadership that urged him to step aside for the good of the party.