Senate Breaks Standoff, Restores Jobless Benefits

One senator's week-long battle to block a bill extending unemployment benefits and highway funds is over. Sen. Jim Bunning (R-KY) backed down Tuesday night and the bill passed, 78 to 19. Bunning relented after Democrats threatened to keep the Senate in session throughout the night to wear him down. His main objection was that the bill added to the deficit.

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Now, in the U.S. Senate, one mans week-long battle to block a bill extending unemployment benefits is over. Kentucky Republican, Jim Bunning, backed down last night, and the bill passed 78 to 19. He relented as Democrats threatened to keep the Senate in session throughout the night to wear him down. His main objection was that the bill added to the deficit.

NPRs David Welna has this report.

DAVID WELNA: Not since he was a Hall of Fame pitcher, has Jim Bunning received as much national attention as he has in the last few days. Although he's retiring this year - or perhaps because he's retiring after being shunned by his GOP colleagues - Bunning ripped up his party leadership's playbook of attacking the Democrats' health care plan.

His now-defunct one-man filibuster quickly became the talk of the nation. Here's Bunning on the Senate floor last night.

Senator JIM BUNNING (Republican, Kentucky): I don't think I've spent this much time on the floor in any one-week period in my life.

WELNA: Bunning has long been a scold on government spending, but he chose to make his biggest stand on a bill helping some of the neediest, that had brought bipartisan backing but no means to fund it other than deficit spending.

Sen. BUNNING: If we cannot pay for a bill that all 100 senators support, how can we tell the American people, with a straight face, that we will ever pay for anything?

WELNA: Bunning chided Senate Democrats for having past a so-called pay-go bill a few weeks ago, that stipulated that all new spending be paid for unless it was an emergency. Democrats responded that the dire unemployment situation is an emergency. And the Senate's number two Democrat, Dick Durbin, said Bunning is hardly the one to lecture on fiscal responsibility.

Senator DICK DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois): The record suggests that he's voted for two wars under President Bush that were not paid for, costing the United States almost a trillion dollars, adding directly to our debt. The senator also has supported eliminating the estate tax on the richest people in America. Certainly that's going to blow a hole in any budget and add to the deficit.

WELNA: And instead of trying to force a vote on taking up a benefits bill, Majority Leader Harry Reid seized on the highly publicized standoff to criticize Republicans more broadly for repeatedly using filibusters to hold up the Democratic agenda.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada, Majority Leader): They have followed now, for a year and a half, a strategy of blocking everything. They've gone too far. They've gone too far in blocking these unemployment benefits.

WELNA: But it wasn't only Reid and other Democrats bashing Republicans. Bunning joined the fray, earlier yesterday, reading a letter from a constituent on the Senate floor that blasted Republican leader and fellow Kentuckian Mitch McConnell.

Sen. BUNNING: It's too bad Senator Mitch McConnell and some of the elected officials on your side of the aisle do not have the backbone of your sense of decency when it comes to keeping their promises to the American people.

WELNA: Many Republicans seem to cringe as their ornery colleague held the floor. Maine's Susan Collins went so far as to ask, on the Senate floor, that the stalled bill be taken up. Bunning objected and Collins vowed later to keep up the pressure.

Senator SUSAN COLLINS (Republican, Maine): The present stalemate is unacceptable. This has real-life consequences for people in this country, and our failure to act on this bill is creating real hardship.

WELNA: GOP leader McConnell was asked seven times, at a news conference, about Bunning's filibuster. He gave the same answer seven times.

Senator MITCH MCCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky, Minority Leader): We're in the process of working this out and hopefully it'll be resolved in the near future. Are there any questions on any other subject?

WELNA: Democrats, for their part, were nothing but eager to discuss Bunning's intransigence. Again, number two Democrat, Dick Durbin.

Sen. DURBIN: Senator Bunning's objection to unemployment benefits has become the face of the Republican filibuster.

WELNA: Eighteen other Republicans joined Bunning in voting against the benefits bill - nearly half the GOP caucus. Bunning seemed pleased with that outcome.

Sen. BUNNING: And I will be back, on future spending bills, demanding that they be paid for.

WELNA: David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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