People@Work: Senate Passes Jobless Benefits After Bunning Drops Opposition

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Millions of Americans who receive unemployment benefits and rely on government subsidies to pay health insurance premiums are breathing a little easier after a lone U.S. senator finally gave in and allowed the Senate to pass emergency funding for those items and others. President Obama signed the bill into law late Tuesday.

Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., had held up the $10 billion spending bill since last week through a quirk in Senate rules. He did so, he said, because the extension wasn't paid for and would add to the nation's deficit. But the 78-year-old lawmaker relented late Tuesday, following days of harsh criticism from Democrats and those within his own party. The bill was brought to the Senate floor for a vote and passed hours later.

In addition to restored unemployment checks for millions of Americans who faced losing benefits altogether and the 65% federal subsidy laid-off workers rely on to pay for the health insurance plan offered through Cobra, some 2,000 furloughed federal employees will return to their jobs and work will resume on about 40 highway projects.

Still, it does make one wonder why Bunning would make those dealing with the fallout from the Great Recession face the brunt of his fiscal wrath, especially since constituents in his home state are faring worse than the nation as a whole. In December, the most recent month for which comparable data is available, Kentucky's unemployment rate stood at 10.7%, while the nationwide rate was 10%. Further, median household income in Kentucky, at $40,138, is only 80% of the nationwide median, while the the Bluegrass State's poverty rate is nearly four percentage points higher than the U.S. rate of 13.3%, according to data compiled by ProPublica, a nonprofit, investigative news source.

Bunning's obstructionism is particularly ironic given his state's motto: "United we stand, divided we fall." So why'd he do it? Some say the Hall of Fame pitcher is just plain ornery. "I think the older he gets, the more cantankerous he becomes," Kentucky Republican Larry Forgy, told the Associated Press. A two-time candidate for governor and one of Bunning's biggest admirers, Forgy said of Bunning, "He's as tough as a pine knot. He doesn't care what they say about him."

But Bunning, who threatened to resume his obstructionist ways should future legislation not meet his fiscal smell test, would do better to listen to one of his own constituents. Louisville resident George Boyd, who lost his job a year ago and could have been affected by the impasse, told the AP: "He's heartless. He doesn't think about the needs of other people." When asked if Bunning was hurting the Republican Party, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said, "He's hurting the American people."

Fortunately for Kentucky -- and the nation -- Bunning's days in the Senate are numbered. After serving 11 years in Washington, he will retire at the end of the session, in part because of lack of backing among those within his own party. That dwindling support was evident Tuesday when just 18 senators joined Bunning in voting against the emergency funding bill (all of them fellow Republicans), while 78 voted in favor.

And while hundreds of thousands of unemployed Americans can breathe a sigh of relief knowing unemployment checks will indeed show up in mailboxes and millions of others' health-insurance premiums will get paid, Tuesday's emergency legislation lasts for only a month. That gives Bunning another chance to throw a wicked curve ball at his fellow lawmakers by threatening to again block legislation. But the only players he is likely to strike out are struggling, unemployed Americans in desperate need of a walk.
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