One-man filibuster draws fire

The federal government Monday began to furlough workers, while hundreds of thousands of jobless Americans nationwide braced for an end of their unemployment checks and health insurance benefits -- the result of a one-man roadblock for a Senate spending bill.

At the center of the drama, which began to unfold late last week, is Sen. Jim Bunning, a Kentucky Republican who single-handedly blocked a bill that would have provided a short-term extension for a bundle of federal funding programs that expired Monday.

Jobless benefits bill: Articles in Section A on Saturday and Tuesday about the efforts of Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) to block an extension of unemployment benefits and health insurance payments said he would retire from the Senate this year. His term runs through Jan. 3. —

Bunning used one of the Senate’s arcane procedural tactics to hold up the measure as a way of protesting the federal deficit -- and drawing intense fire from Democrats in the process.

Bunning, who is retiring at the end of the year, said he had opposed the bill because it didn’t include an offset in spending to keep the federal deficit from increasing.

Senate leaders gave Bunning a chance Monday on the Senate floor to allow the unemployment insurance and COBRA health insurance extensions to go through. But he renewed his objection.

The Senate is likely to pass the package but not until later this week.

“The net result of one senator’s objection is to put us into a procedural process that could take days,” said Senate majority whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.). “It’s going to create hardship across America.”

Durbin said Bunning’s action would result in 400,000 people going without an unemployment check, with that number rising each day.

Bunning was able to block the bill because both Democratic and Republican leaders in the Senate had signed off on passing it without a floor vote, instead asking that it be approved by unanimous consent.

Bunning withheld his consent Thursday and continued to do so into Monday evening.

The federal Department of Transportation said it was temporarily laying off 2,000 employees without pay starting Monday and would begin suspending construction projects nationwide because a highway funding program ran out of money. The situation could be alleviated in days if the Senate acts or if the House passes another bill that extends the program.

Most Republicans have distanced themselves from Bunning’s action, but that didn’t stop Democrats on the Hill from painting the GOP as obstructionist.

“Bunning’s done more in the past few days to call attention to Republican procedural abuses in the Senate than anything we’ve seen before,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.).

The bill would have extended provisions that were included in last year’s economic stimulus package, including one in which the federal government assumes 65% of the cost of COBRA health benefits. It would have also continued other key programs, including one that would keep Medicare reimbursement rates at current levels.

On Monday, the government began a 21% cut in Medicare payments to doctors. In addition, some rural satellite TV subscribers probably lost access to local channels, and a Small Business Administration lending program was interrupted.

The American Medical Assn. signaled its displeasure Monday in a blistering statement, saying the Senate had made senior citizens “collateral damage to their procedural games.”

Richard Simon in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.