Senate maneuver stalls jobs bill

Construction on the Ninth Street Bridge stopped abruptly after a bill with federal transportation funding stalled
Construction on the Ninth Street Bridge stopped abruptly after a bill with federal transportation funding stalled (Gerald Martineau For The Washington Post)
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By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Hundreds of thousands of unemployed workers faced an end to their jobless benefits Monday, and the federal government furloughed about 2,000 employees without pay, a result of one senator's efforts to block legislation that would fund $10 billion in federal programs.

Lawmakers failed to reach an agreement last week on tax credits, unemployment benefits and a short-term extension of the Highway Trust Fund. Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) derailed the bill on Thursday when it came to the floor for unanimous approval. Bunning withheld his consent.

"The bottom line is that Senator Bunning wants to renew these important programs," spokesman Mike Reynard said. However, the senator "feels very strongly that we can't keep adding to the debt."

Now, the Senate is likely to pass a larger package, but not until later this week.

"It's going to create hardship across America," said Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), the Senate majority whip. He said Bunning's action would result in 400,000 people nationwide going without an unemployment check, with that number rising each day.

The bill Bunning voted against would have extended provisions that were included in last year's stimulus package, including one in which the federal government assumed 65 percent of the cost of COBRA health benefits. It would have perpetuated other key programs, including one that would keep Medicare reimbursement rates at current levels.

On Monday, the government began paying doctors who see Medicare patients more than 20 percent less. In addition, the delay meant that some rural satellite-TV subscribers likely lost access to local channels, and a Small Business Administration lending program was interrupted.

The Department of Transportation furloughed 2,000 employees without pay Monday, and state officials warned that unless Congress this week restores the transportation funding, which provides states with $42 billion a year, construction contracts will be delayed, construction loans may be jeopardized and projects suspended.

Two constructions that require on-site federal inspectors -- replacement of the Ninth Street Bridge in the District and a new road at the Hoover Dam in Nevada -- were immediately suspended.

Federal transportation budgets have stumbled along since September, when the last big funding plan expired. Congress authorizes the funds in massive bills that cover six years of spending.

Unable to agree on a new bill this time, Congress kept funding alive with a series of 30-day extensions.

If resources become gridlocked in the Senate, it may fall to the House to revive the transportation pipeline. That chamber is considering a Senate-approved jobs bill that also would extend transportation funding until September. But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is said to be having trouble marshalling support for it among Democrats who are bothered by other provisions in the legislation.

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