Democrats are furious about what they call an “unconscionable” one-man filibuster of a measure that would temporarily extend jobless benefits. At stake are unemployment benefits and an extension of COBRA subsidies, as well as a short-term extension of the Highway Trust Fund authorization that expired over the weekend.
Kentucky Republican Jim Bunning said he wants the extension to be paid for out of unused stimulus funds. As long as the bill isn’t fully paid for up front, he said he’ll continue his filibuster.
Several Democrats released scathings statements condemning the hold — Reps. Jim Oberstar and Betty McCollum both called it “outrageous,” while Sen. Al Franken deemed it “unconscionable.” Sen. Amy Klobuchar said the measure has more than enough support to pass the Senate, adding in a conference call with reporters that Bunning’s hold “makes no sense at all.”
Oberstar spokesman John Schadl said 1,818 Minnesotans stand to lose their COBRA subsidies, which offset continued health insurance costs for the recently unemployed, and will face the choice between paying the full amount of coverage (between $500 and $2,000 a month) on whatever income they have left or simply going without. If they do decide to drop coverage, Schadl said, they aren’t allowed to restart it if and when the subsidy is reauthoraized.
Unemployment benefit reductions are somewhat tricky to gauge. Schadl explains:
“The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development estimates that from 8,000 to 9,000 Minnesotans could be impacted by the failure to extend federal unemployment insurance. Since Minnesota has an additional emergency unemployment program that many of these people may be eligible for, it is unlikely that benefits will quit flowing in the next few days. However, DEED officials say they are being faced with an ‘administrative nightmare,’ as they try to redirect thousands of recipients into the correct programs. If the federal extension is not renewed, many unemployed Minnesotan’s will see the term of their benefits shortened by up to 13 weeks.”
The hold also forced the federal Department of Transportation to furlough 2,000 federal employees today, and suspend work on dozens of highway and transportation projects. None of those were in Minnesota, however, as a state Department of Transportation official said they had been planning for such a contingency.
“We’re OK in the short term,” said Mn/DOT spokesman Kevin Gutknecht. “We can still authorize and let projects, and we’re still doing that.” Asked what if the short term meant days, weeks or months, Gutknecht said “weeks.”
For his part, Bunning seems content to keep up the hold, though indications are that it will be overridden this week or cast aside by Senate leaders who may decide to move a bigger, longer-lasting bill that he won’t be able to procedurally object to.
Just don’t ask him about it.
ABC News reported that when one of their producers tried to question Bunning as he left his Hart Building office, Bunning responded by saying “I’m not talking to anybody” then saluting the reporter with one finger raised — you can guess which one.