WASHINGTON — Kentucky Sen. Jim Bunning continued his one-man blockade Monday of short-term funding for a host of federal programs that expired Sunday, leaving thousands without unemployment benefits and nearly 2,000 federal transportation workers on furlough.
The Republican senator's objection to the funding bill has temporarily shut down multimillion-dollar construction projects in several states and canceled highway reimbursements to states worth hundreds of millions of dollars, said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
"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 statement. "This means that construction workers will be sent home from job sites because federal inspectors must be furloughed."
Federal projects shut down by the furlough include work in Idaho's Nez Perce National Forest and Fernan Lakes Idaho Panhandle National Forest (more than $38 million) and bridge replacements in the Washington, D.C., area ($86 million). Kentucky doesn't have Department of Transportation projects that will be affected by Bunning's action.
Bunning, 77, a Hall of Fame pitcher who is not seeking re-election this year, wants the $10 billion price of extending the programs offset by reductions in spending elsewhere in the budget.
"If we can't find $10 billion to pay for it, then we're not going to pay for anything. The debt that we have arrived at, even the head of the Federal Reserve Bank chairman (Ben) Bernanke said it's unsustainable," Bunning said on the Senate floor Monday afternoon.
ABC News reported Monday that Bunning declined to be interviewed about his stance on the bill. When a producer asked him to stay and talk, Bunning "walked toward the elevator and shot the middle finger over his head."
The Kentucky Republican, according to several sources, told Democratic colleagues "tough s---" Thursday when they tried to get him to change his mind about blocking a voice vote on the bill. Voice votes can be blocked by a single objection, and the next roll call vote was scheduled for Tuesday.
Federal agencies and lawmakers spent much of the weekend trying to assess the ripple affects of Bunning's actions.
According to the National Employment Law Project, a research group, some 1.2 million unemployed workers, including 14,000 in Kentucky, would lose federal jobless benefits this month. The U.S. Labor Department figures about one-third will lose benefits in the first two weeks of the month.
Letting the highway program lapse could mean an estimated 90,000 jobs lost. As many as 2 million families with satellite television service could lose access to local television stations because a copyright law expired Sunday night.
According to the law project, states hardest hit by the Monday cutoff could be California, where an estimated 201,274 people could lose jobless benefits, and Florida, where the total is an estimated 105,016. Other potential state totals: Georgia, 48,284; Texas, 82,850; and Illinois, 65,431.
A spokesman for Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky's senior senator, issued a statement Monday expressing disappointment that unemployment benefits had been allowed to lapse.
"Senator McConnell supports extending unemployment benefits and is disappointed they have expired," said Robert Steurer, a McConnell spokesman. "He believes this should have been addressed weeks ago when there was a bipartisan agreement to do so. However, he hopes this issue is resolved quickly so that Kentuckians who are out of work will have their benefits restored soon."
Other Republicans took Bunning to task.
"It's hard to argue with a senator who wants to become fiscally responsible ..." said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. "However, when it comes to unemployment benefits, I don't think it's fair to punish people who've already lost their jobs. You have to be realistic sometimes. The money is running out."
Sen. Jon Kyl, the Senate's No. 2 Republican, promised Sunday that Congress will pass legislation to fund the jobless benefits, highway and transit projects and other government programs.
However, the Senate is not expected to act until Tuesday at the earliest. And when it does reconvene, it plans to consider a longer-term extension.
The bill, which also could include tax breaks that expired at the end of last year, is expected to attract several amendments that could slow it down, and although Republican leaders say the measure will pass eventually, approval is likely to be delayed until the end of the week. Once the Senate passes the measure, it needs the consent of the House of Representatives.
Kyl, though, told Fox News Sunday, flatly, "it will pass."
The Arizona senator also sympathized with Bunning. Recently, Congress adopted "pay as you go" rules requiring that in many cases, new programs must be paid for. So why, Bunning asked, if these extensions are so popular, can't Congress find the money to fund them?
"Congress just passed the so-called pay-go legislation, which is supposed to require that we find offsets or other savings if we're going to spend money," Kyl said. "And what's the first thing we do? We exempt this bill from it."
Bunning remained steadfast in the face of withering criticism Monday.
Democrats seized the opportunity to pounce on Bunning and his party for "obstructionist politics."
Kentucky Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo, a Democratic candidate for Bunning's seat, plans to hold a protest rally at 3 p.m. Tuesday outside Bunning's Lexington office at 771 Corporate Drive. And Kentucky Republican Rand Paul's campaign for the U.S. Senate plans to hold a rally to support Bunning at the same time and place.