Archive for March, 2010

Talks under way on jobless benefit deal, senator says

March 2, 2010

Embattled Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Kentucky, said Tuesday that he is involved in discussions to help end a stalemate over the extension of unemployment benefits for millions of jobless Americans.

Asked whether senators are close to finalizing a deal, Bunning said, “We’re trying.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell also said top Democrats and Republicans were trying to find a resolution to the impasse. “We are in the process of working this out, and hopefully it will be resolved in the near future,” he said.

The Senate adjourned last week without approving extensions of cash and health insurance benefits for the unemployed after Bunning blocked the measure by insisting that Congress first pay for the $10 billion package.

The extension needed unanimous consent to pass because Democrats have labeled it an emergency spending measure. Bunning rejected a motion for unanimous consent again Tuesday morning.

Bunning, who is retiring at the end of this year, has said he doesn’t oppose extending the programs; he just doesn’t want to add to the deficit. Democrats argue that, because it is an emergency measure, the bill should not be subject to new rules requiring that legislation not expand the deficit.

As a result of the Senate’s inaction, many jobless people were no longer able to apply for federal unemployment benefits or the COBRA health insurance subsidy as of Monday.

Bunning’s action have created a political firestorm. On Tuesday morning, the Kentucky Republican pushed on the Senate floor for a measure that would pay the $10 billion tab out of the Democrats’ previously passed $862 billion stimulus bill. He also dared Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, to hold a vote to cut off debate on the measure.

Video: Senators debate Bunning block

Video: Protesting Bunning’s block

Video: Bunning remains defiant

Video: XYZ: Jim Bunning

Reid rejected Bunning’s motions.

“You have made your point … [but] the majority of the Senate disagrees with you,” Reid said to Bunning. The need to extend unemployment benefits is “an emergency. … Our economy is suffering. [There are] long lines of people out of work.”

Reid called Bunning’s legislative maneuvering “terribly inappropriate” and “very out of line.”

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs chimed in as well.

“This is an emergency situation,” he said. “Hundreds of thousands have been left in the lurch. … I don’t know how you negotiate the irrational.”

Maine GOP Sen. Susan Collins quickly moved to separate herself from Bunning and side with the Democratic leader, noting that the issue is “so important to senators on both sides of the aisle.”

She later said Bunning’s views “do not represent the majority of the Republican caucus.”

“Ideally, we would offset this” spending bill, she said. “But I would support it either way because the programs are emergency programs. It’s a very short-term [one month] extension.”

One GOP senator who declined to be identified said Republicans are “furious” with Bunning. “This plays right into the Democratic narrative that we’re obstructionist,” the senator said. “We look insensitive.”

“To say Bunning is not beloved is an understatement,” the senator added.

Bunning in turn called Senate Democrats “hypocritical” for recently passing rules requiring that new legislation not expand the deficit, only to turn around and push both the emergency unemployment extension and a $15 billion jobs bill that, according to Bunning, is not fully paid for.

He read a letter from a constituent in Louisville, Kentucky, praising him for deciding to “stand up to those in Congress who want to do nothing more than to spend the taxpayers’ money.”

“This country is sooner or later going to implode because of the massive amount of debt run up over the past 40 or 50 years,” the letter said, according to Bunning. It is “sheer lunacy” to be “selling our nation’s soul” to creditors such as China.

“Your stance in holding [politicians] to their words … is a refreshing concept in an otherwise corrupt” capital.

Bunning identified the constituent only by the first name of Robert, citing security concerns.

CNN’s Dana Bash noted Tuesday that Democrats could effectively work around Bunning and pass an extension of unemployment benefits. However, she said, the Democrats “know that they have a good political issue right now [and therefore] have no plans to do that in the immediate future.”

Bash also noted that the GOP leadership has a poor relationship with Bunning and is therefore unable to pressure him to back down.

Federal unemployment benefits kick in after the basic state-funded 26 weeks of coverage expire. During the downturn, Congress has approved up to an additional 73 weeks, which it funds.

These federal benefit weeks are divided into tiers, and the jobless must apply each time they move into a new tier.

Because the Senate has not acted, the jobless will now stop getting checks once they run out of their state benefits or current tier of federal benefits.

iReporter: Shame on you, Sen. Bunning

That could be devastating to the unemployed who were counting on that income. In total, more than a million people could stop getting checks next month, with nearly 5 million running out of benefits by June, according to the National Unemployment Law Project.

Lawmakers have repeatedly tried to approve a 30-day extension, but each time Bunning has prevented the measure from passing.

Several other programs aside from unemployment and health benefits are also affected by the legislative spat, including federal flood insurance, satellite TV licensing, and small business loans.

The stalled bill also would provide a short-term extension of the Highway Trust Fund, which is a federal fund set up to pay for transportation projects nationwide.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said Monday that up to 2,000 employees at the Transportation Department will be sent home without pay as a result of Bunning’s decision to hold up the bill.

“As American families are struggling in tough economic times, I am keenly disappointed that political games are putting a stop to important construction projects around the country,” LaHood said in a news release. “This means that construction workers will be sent home from job sites because federal inspectors must be furloughed.”

According to two Democratic aides on the Senate floor Thursday night, Bunning muttered “tough s—” as Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, criticized Bunning’s stance on the package.


Obama explores Republican ideas for revised health care bill

March 2, 2010

President Obama says he is exploring four Republican proposals to add to his updated health care plan, according to a letter he sent today to congressional leaders.

The GOP ideas — discussed at last week’s bipartisan health care summit — include expanding the use of fraud investigators disguised as patients to uncover waste and abuse in federal programs such as Medicaid, a proposal made by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla. Obama also says he’s open to bigger pilot programs on possible changes to the rules governing medical malpractice lawsuits, a longtime GOP issue.

Obama also wrote that he is open to the idea of higher Medicaid reimbursements for doctors, as proposed by Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa. And the president pledged to look at expanded use of health savings accounts, as discussed last week by Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo. Barrasso and Coburn were among the medical doctor-lawmakers who participated in the summit.

These ideas will be added to the $950 billion plan that Obama proposed last week. Obama will discuss an updated plan Wednesday at the White House.

“After decades of trying, we’re closer than we’ve ever been to making health insurance reform a reality,” Obama wrote in his letter. “I look forward to working with you to complete what would be a truly historic achievement.”

The president said he would not include other Republican proposals, include their suggestion that health care legislation be approached in a step-by-step fashion.

“I also believe that piecemeal reform is not the best way to effectively reduce premiums, end the exclusion of people with pre-existing conditions or offer Americans the security of knowing that they will never lose coverage, even if they lose or change jobs,” he wrote.

Obama noted that his plan deletes proposals that Republicans have attacked in recent weeks. They include exempting the state of Nebraska from Medicaid costs, and maintaining Medicare Advantage benefits from residents of Florida