Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Senator again blocks jobless benefits; road work on hold


Tuesday, March 2, 2010
Kentucky Republican Sen. Jim Bunning objected Tuesday to a request by Maine Sen. Susan Collins, a fellow Republican, to pass a 30-day extension of jobless benefits and other expired measures. The measure would also extend highway programs. Bunning has been single-handedly blocking the stopgap legislation since Thursday. (AP photo)
Kentucky Republican Sen. Jim Bunning objected Tuesday to a request by Maine Sen. Susan Collins, a fellow Republican, to pass a 30-day extension of jobless benefits and other expired measures. The measure would also extend highway programs. Bunning has been single-handedly blocking the stopgap legislation since Thursday. (AP photo)

WASHINGTON — Sen. Jim Bunning on Tuesday again blocked the Senate from extending unemployment benefits and health insurance subsidies for the jobless — and essential federal transportation funding is caught in the political crossfire.

The Kentucky Republican objected Tuesday to a request by Maine Sen. Susan Collins, a fellow Republican, to pass a 30-day extension of jobless benefits and other expired measures. The measure would also extend highway programs and prevent a big cut in Medicare payments to doctors.

Bunning has been single-handedly blocking the stopgap legislation since Thursday, to the increasing discomfort of Republicans like Collins. Collins said 500 people from her state would lose their unemployment benefits this week, while doctors will soon have to absorb a 21 percent cuts in their Medicare reimbursements.

“This issue is so important to senators on both sides of the aisle,” Collins said.

Because another extension of the federal highway program is included in the legislation package, the Transportation Department has suspended state reimbursements for transportation projects and has furloughed 2,000 employees at the Federal Highway Administration, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Research and Innovative Technology Administration.

The highway program halt immediately prompted dire predictions from a range of transportation interests.

The American Trucking Associations on Tuesday issued a statement urging Congress to restore the transportation funds, noting specifically the money designated for the Motor Carrier Safety Assistance Program. MCSAP provides state grants for roadside inspection of commercial trucks and buses.

“Without this money, states may not be able to provide sufficient enforcement efforts necessary to ensure commercial vehicles are in a safe operating condition, and that truck and bus drivers are properly licensed and in compliance with federal safety regulations such as the federal hours-of-service regulations,” said ATA President and CEO Bill Graves.

Following an emergency meeting Monday, state transportation officials called the action “a bad situation and it’s only going to get worse.”

“If you do the math, we’re talking about more than $153 million a day in lost reimbursement payments for highway projects to the states,” said Larry L. “Butch” Brown, executive director of the Mississippi Department of Transportation and president of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. “Congress has to move quickly to correct this by passing legislation and getting it signed into law.”

According to the Federal Highway Administration, the shutdown means that $768 million in highway outlays and $157 million in transit outlays for the week ending March 5 could be affected.

“The timing could not be worse for a lot of reasons,” said Susan Martinovich, director of the Nevada Department of Transportation and AASHTO vice president. “States need every dollar they can get to improve our aging roads and bridges and put people to work. My home state of Nevada has the nation’s seventh-highest unemployment rate at 10.4 percent. We should be awarding contracts for spring construction right now, but instead many states are forced to delay and in some cases cancel projects. Congress must act quickly to solve this problem.”

Jobs are the focus of the Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO.

“Partisan games are getting in the way of progress for our nation’s transportation system. But for at least 2,000 workers who will get furloughed, this is no game,” said Edward Wytkind, TTD president. “Sen. Bunning’s actions are not only irresponsible, but they are downright dangerous. In this economy, to purposefully put people out of work is cold-hearted. But it’s even worse that these workers perform essential functions to expand and build our nation’s transportation system and ensure it is safe for all its users.”

A coalition of housing, environmental, equal opportunity, public health, urban planning, and transportation organizations whose goal is to build a modernized infrastructure, sees the latest stumble as part of broader problem. 

“The problem is not simply that one senator was able to thwart a crucial, timely vote. That lone Senator was able to shut down our nation’s transportation program only because Congress has left this essential underpinning of our economy on life-support for far too long,” said , James Corless, campaign director of Transportation for America. “The highway trust fund we created to build the interstates in the 1950s simply is not up to the job of building and maintaining the system we need for the 21st century. This is not a backburner issue, even if Congress has been treating it as one.”

Frustrated Democrats have been lobbing attacks at Bunning and his fellow Republicans for days. Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., implored Bunning to relent and allow a vote.

But Democrats are also reaping political gains by attacking Bunning and his fellow Republicans. All three major cable news networks carried Tuesday’s proceedings live, and two other members of the Democratic leadership, Charles Schumer of New York and Patty Murray of Washington, came to the floor to attack Republicans for blocking the legislation.

“Today we have a clear cut example to show the American people just what’s wrong with Washington, D.C.,” Murray said. “That is because today one single Republican senator is standing in the way of the unemployment benefits of 400,000 Americans.”

Bunning said again Tuesday that he opposed the extension because it would add $10 billion to the budget deficit, and he attacked Democrats for abandoning promises to pay for legislation instead of contributing to a budget deficits projected to hit almost $1.6 trillion this year. Bunning proposes to pay for the extension with unspent money from last year’s massive economic recovery package, but Reid objected.

Democrats want to pass the measure with the unanimous permission of all senators, a common tactic to speed non-controversial measures through the notoriously balky Senate. Otherwise it could take almost a week to slog through the procedural steps required to take up the measure and defeat Bunning’s filibuster.

Bunning is retiring from the Senate at the end of the current session, which gives fellow party members little leverage to try to force him to change his mind. Bunning has been feuding with his home state colleague, GOP Leader Mitch McConnell, who privately urged him to retire rather than risk losing the seat to Democrats.

Associated Press writer Andrew Taylor contributed to this report.

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