Concern About Deficit Spending Creates Senate Impasse, Furloughing Transportation Workers, Delaying Medicare Payments to Doctors
Democrats seized on the impasse to portray Republicans as obstructionists willing to block popular programs that create jobs and provide relief to the unemployed. Adding its voice to the flap, the White House said it was trying to "shame" Republican Sen. Jim Bunning of Kentucky for single-handedly blocking the $10 billion extension.
In fact, it appeared the spat would have little impact on ordinary Americans because lawmakers expect to resolve the dispute this week.
But in the meantime, 41 highway projects were to be shut down because federal inspectors were off the job, and the Obama administration ordered Medicare billing contractors not to pay any claims from doctors for the first 10 business days of March. Most laid-off workers receiving unemployment benefits won't be affected -- unless the impasse drags on -- but those seeking payment extensions won't be able to obtain them.
"Six times last week, Democrats asked to extend their unemployment benefits for a short time while they work on a longer extension. Six times, Republicans said no," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. "The Republicans in the Senate are standing between these families and the help they need while these benefits expire."
Republicans have been largely silent on the impasse, with several defending Bunning's right as a senator to slow the legislation, but none offering full-throated support. Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, said Bunning correctly argues that the bill ought to be paid for, but he predicted it would pass.
Bunning, who is not seeking re-election, has single-handedly held up a bill since Thursday that would extend the programs for 30 days. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs called out Bunning on Friday and Monday, saying, "Sometimes even using their names doesn't create the shame that you would think it would."
Bunning said he opposed the extension because it would add to the budget deficit, already projected to hit a record $1.56 trillion this year. Bunning proposed to pay for the extension with unspent money from last year's massive economic recovery package, but Democrats objected.
The House passed the short-term extension Thursday while lawmakers consider how to address the issues long-term. Senate Democrats repeatedly tried to follow suit -- they kept the Senate in session until nearly midnight Thursday -- but Bunning was able to block the bill under Senate rules that enable a single senator to slow the process.
The bill would extend unemployment payments to laid-off workers and provide them with subsidies to help pay health premiums through the COBRA program. It would extend funding for highway projects and spare doctors from a 21 percent cut in Medicare payments. It would extend a small business loan program, the National Flood Insurance Program and the copyright license used by satellite television providers.
Furloughs will affect employees at the Federal Highway Administration, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Research and Innovative Technology Administration.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said construction workers will be sent home from job sites because federal inspectors must be furloughed.
The Medicare cuts come from a 1990s deficit reduction measure that Congress has routinely waived over the years. Medicare payments to doctors would be cut by 21 percent, if Congress doesn't act.
Most people already receiving extended unemployment benefits won't be affected by the impasse. But in the unlikely event that the impasse lasts through March, about 1.1 million people would lose benefits.
Senators said more than 1 million rural television viewers would not be able to watch local stations on their satellite systems without an extension.
Associated Press writers Joan Lowy, Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar and Ben Feller contributed to this report.