Bunning blocks jobless benefits

WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning of Kentucky may be a lame duck Republican, but he still knows how to make a flap.

Late Thursday night and again Friday morning, Bunning single-handedly blocked a 30-day extension of unemployment benefits and health insurance payments for more than 1 million jobless Americans over concerns about the federal deficit.

Along the way, he complained of having to miss the University of Kentucky's basketball game against South Carolina and reportedly responded to a Democrat's complaints with "tough s---."

The result: Some unemployment benefits could dry up Monday. Newly laid-off workers might not get federal help with health insurance premiums. Road and transit bills could go unpaid. Medicare payments to doctors would stay high. Rural satellite reception might even be affected.

By Friday afternoon, Bunning's regional offices in Hazard and Louisville received bomb threats, according to the Kentucky State Police in Hazard. Police said they evacuated the premises, and searched the area with sniffer dogs. As of Friday evening, nothing had been found and the investigation was turned over to the FBI.

Bunning spokesman Mike Reynard said phones in all of Bunning's offices have been "ringing off the hook all day. I think a lot of people are upset, but there have been some positive calls."

Reynard said Bunning supports the legislation but believes it must be paid for. So far, Democrats have rejected his ideas, such as paying for the measure with unspent stimulus funds.

"If we can't find $10 billion to fund something all 100 senators agree on, we won't pay for anything," Reynard said.

The top Republicans seeking to replace Bunning, who is not seeking re-election in November, applauded the 77-year-old Hall of Fame pitcher's hardball stance as the top Democrats in the race denounced the move.

Republican Trey Grayson, Kentucky's secretary of state, said he would "proudly stand up to ensure that programs are paid for." Republican Rand Paul, a Bowling Green eye surgeon, said "more senators need to stand up for the taxpayers and against the big-spending career politicians in both parties."

Democrat Daniel Mongiardo, Kentucky's lieutenant governor, labeled Bunning's maneuver "cold-hearted disregard for his fellow Kentuckians." Democrat Jack Conway, Kentucky's attorney general, accused Bunning of "grandstanding and political posturing, despite being asked to stop even by his Republican colleagues."

Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear said 119,230 unemployed Kentuckians are receiving benefits through the federal extension program that will expire Sunday. About 14,000 of those would exhaust their benefits within two weeks without the extension, he said. Kentucky's unemployment rate stands at 10.7 percent.

The House of Representatives passed the extension by voice vote earlier this week, and the Senate was expected to go along. Then along came Bunning, a fiscal conservative, who objected because Congress didn't pay for the $10 billion bill.

Voice votes can be blocked by a single objection. With many lawmakers already gone for the weekend, the next roll call vote in the Senate isn't scheduled until Tuesday.

After Democrats spent several hours urging Bunning to reconsider his objection Thursday night, Bunning complained just before midnight that he had been forced to miss UK's game against South Carolina.

"We weren't going to stand around for three and a half hours debating the issue," he said. "But I want to assure the people who have watched this thing until a quarter of 12, I have missed the Kentucky-South Carolina game that started at 9 o'clock. It is the only redeeming chance we had to beat South Carolina, since they are the only team that has beat Kentucky this year."

At another point, Bunning responded to a plea by Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., to end his objection with "tough s---," according to Politico, a Washington-based political publication.

Among the other provisions set to expire are the flood insurance program, Small Business Administration loans, a 21 percent cut in Medicare payments to doctors.

Anyone laid off after March 1 no longer would be able to get federal help to pay health insurance premiums; the program now pays 65 percent of the cost for certain workers.

Rural television watchers could lose local channels because the bill would extend the copyright licenses used by satellite television companies to offer the service.

The Senate is expected to consider a longer-term extension of the programs Monday, with passage likely next week.

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