WASHINGTON — The Senate late Tuesday night passed a $10 billion measure to provide stopgap funding for highway programs and to keep unemployment benefits for the jobless after a lone Republican stopped stalling measures that had created a Washington furor.
“I am so pleased to report that the Senate acted late tonight to break its logjam, extending the Highway Trust Fund for another 30 days,” said Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood on DOT’s Web site. “This means that our valued employees who were placed on furlough Monday, should return to work Wednesday morning.
“I am very happy to have all of you back at work, serving the public. And I regret the hardship that this legislative impasse put you through.
“This means that your important work getting the economy back on its feet, ensuring Americans’ safety, and keeping critical construction projects moving, will be able to continue.
“I am grateful for your service and look forward to welcome you back to DOT tomorrow.”
Kentucky Republican Jim Bunning had been blocking funding for days but gave up after growing pressure after Monday's cutoff of road funding and extended unemployment benefits and health insurance subsidies for the jobless.
Bunning wanted to make Democrats come up with a way to fund the bill so that it wouldn't create more of a deficit, but his blockade instead made Republicans the target of stinging media reports and cost the Republicans politically. Even Republican support was shrinking, while Democrats after being on the defensive over health care and the budget crisis had someone to take potshots at for a change.
The bill passed by a 78-19 vote having passed the House last week.
President Barack Obama is expected to sign off on the bill quickly so that the 2,000 furloughed DOT workers can go back to work.
Doctors faced the prospect of a 21 percent cut in Medicare payments, and federal flood insurance programs had lapsed with Monday's expiration of an earlier stopgap bill that passed late last year.
The measure will extend the expired programs for a month, giving Congress time in which to pass a year-long and much more costly extension that also has been hanging fire.
Without the vote, an estimated 200,000 jobless would have lost federal benefits just for this week, according to estimates from the liberal-leaning National Employment Law Project. The jobless usually receive 26 weeks of unemployment benefits and 20 more weeks in states with higher numbers of unemployed. The measure extends several additional layers of benefits added since 2008 because of the lingering recession.
Earlier on Tuesday, Bunning objected to a request by Maine Sen. Susan Collins, a fellow Republican, to pass a 30-day extension of jobless benefits and other expired measures.
When asked Tuesday if Bunning was hurting the Republican Party, Collins said, "He's hurting the American people."
Other Republicans were more diplomatic in their assessments of Bunning, who is said to have a stubborn streak and who has been characterized as irascible. Bunning is grudgingly retiring at the end of the current term and enjoys a tense relationship with home state colleague and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has privately urged Bunning to step aside.
Bunning had blocked the stopgap legislation since Thursday, insisting that Democrats find offsetting revenues or spending cuts to finance the bill. Instead, he settled for a vote to close a tax loophole enjoyed by paper companies that get a credit from burning "black liquor," a pulp-making byproduct, as if it were an alternative fuel. The amendment failed.
Dick Durbin of Illinois, the Senate's No. 2 Democrat, said that Bunning was accepting an offer that he had rejected for days.
"As a result ... unemployment benefits were cut off for thousands of people across America, assistance for health care was cut off across America, thousands of federal employees were furloughed," Durbin said.
Democrats had promised to force Bunning to repeatedly lodge objections to bringing the bill to a vote. Otherwise it could take almost a week to slog through the procedural steps required to take up the measure and defeat Bunning's filibuster.
"Today we have a clear-cut example to show the American people just what's wrong with Washington, D.C.," Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said. "That is because today one single Republican senator is standing in the way of the unemployment benefits of 400,000 Americans."
Democrats promised to retroactively restore unemployment benefits and health care subsidies for the unemployed under the COBRA program. LaHood ordered furloughed employees back to work Wednesday.
The impasse had led to political gains for Democrats attacking Bunning and his fellow Republicans. Major cable news networks carried Tuesday morning's proceedings live and returned to the topic frequently.
Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has called up a $100-billion-plus measure to provide a longer-term extension of unemployment benefits that would last through the end of the year, along with a full-year extension of higher Medicare payments to doctors, help for states with their Medicaid budgets and a continuing a variety of expired tax breaks for individuals and businesses.
For more information about DOT-related programs, interested persons are urged to call the individual agencies:
Associated Press sources contributed to this report.
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