Republican Relents On Jobless Benefits Extension
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
On Capitol Hill, the one-man filibuster is over. Senator Jim Bunning has relented. He allowed a bill to go forward that extends unemployment benefits and the national highway fund. It was approved by a vote of 78 to 19. Bunning, a Republican from Kentucky, had blocked the measure since last Thursday while demanding that it be fully funded - the standoff through federal benefits for hundreds of thousands of people in jeopardy.
NPR's David Welna joins us now from Capitol Hill to explain what's going on. David, fill us in first. What was Senator Bunning blocking and why?
DAVID WELNA: Well, in the Senate, Michele, you need unanimous consent or the agreement of every senator to move forward on just about anything. And Senator Bunning used that power of one to object to what would've otherwise been a pretty routine, temporary extension of unemployment benefits that began running out this week.
Every time Democrats would try to bring up the bill and this morning even a Republican (unintelligible) Susan Collins tried bringing the bill up, Bunning would object. And his beef with the bill came down to this: The only way it would be paid for is through more deficit spending. And as Bunning repeatedly noted, Senate Democrats last month voted not to approve any more spending that's not paid for, except for emergencies, which they considered this social safety net extension bill to be.
Take a listen now to Bunning this evening on the Senate floor.
Senator JIM BUNNING (Republican, Kentucky): We must bring an end to the out of control spending, and there is no better time than now. I urge my colleagues to join me in saying, enough, and restoring some discipline to Washington.
NORRIS: So, an about face there, really, from Jim Bunning. Why did he relent? Did he get some sort of deal behind the scenes?
WELNA: He did get a deal, but it was basically the same deal he was offered almost a week ago when he turned it down. And it was to hold a vote on using another source of funding to pay for the 30-day extension of unemployment benefits. But Democrats said that simply took funding that was already going to be used for extending those benefits for the entire year. And they blocked his move by raising the budget point of order.
I think the real reason Bunning finally backed down was that his Republican colleagues turned up the pressure on him to relent. They did not want everyone talking about Bunning's filibuster and how Republicans were blocking unemployment benefits. They prefer that the national conversation be about Democrats getting ready to do an end run around a Senate filibuster to get their health care bill finished something that Republicans wanted to portray as being unfair. But after this filibuster that may be a bit harder to do.
NORRIS: What's the immediate upshot?
WELNA: This bill's getting passed means the unemployment benefits that expired Sunday night at midnight will be extended for another 30 days, as will the funding for 2,000 highway inspectors who were furloughed this week because of the bill being held up.
NORRIS: Now, the Democrats have been trying to end the filibuster since last week. I understand that today come Republicans joined in that effort. Has this how has this been playing politically?
WELNA: Well, for Democrats this has been a political gift. They've been complaining for months about GOP obstructionism in the Senate. But they had a hard time getting people to pay attention. I think the Bunning filibuster really shined a national spotlight on how Republicans can and do hold things up in the Senate. And that's also, I think, why other Republicans were eager to get this over with. It made their party look heartless to a lot of people, even though it was just one member holding things up.
Although half the Republicans did end up voting against extending the benefits. Bunning says he'll keep objecting to future spending that's not paid for, but it's not clear whether he'll attempt any more one-man filibusters.
NORRIS: Thank you, David.
WELNA: Thank you.
NORRIS: That's NPR's David Welna.
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