Senators React to Bunning's Bid to Block Unfunded Bill: Need Trumps Principle

By Matt Cover and Joe Schoffstall | March 3, 2010 | 6:50 PM EST

Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., heads for the weekly caucus lunch on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, March 2, 2010. (AP Photo/Harry Hamburg)

( – Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) said that fellow Republican Senator Jim Bunning (Ky.) was “entitled” to his “rights as a senator” to insist  that $10 billion in highway funds and unemployment and related benefits be paid for before Congress extended them.

Other senators, however, suggested that they support Bunning's dedication to fiscal responsibility, but, think the spending is needed to address a national emergency.

Until late on Tuesday, Bunning had not given his consent for the $10 billion extension to move forward for a vote because it is borrowed money and would add to the national debt. He had offered to release his hold on the bill if the Democrat-controlled Senate agreed to pay for the extension using, for example, unspent money from the $787 billion economic stimulus law or closing a tax hoophole.
When asked by on Wednesday whether Bunning was right to insist that Congress abide by the recently enacted Pay-Go rules and pay for the extended benefits before providing them, Sen. McCain said:
“I think that Sen. Bunning is entitled to exercising his rights as senator and I respect those rights, and I don’t have anything else to say.” McCain supported Bunning’s amendment to fund the extended benefits through closing a tax loophole.

Other Republicans offered qualified support for Bunning’s position, saying that while they supported the principle of fiscal responsibility they also recognized the need to pass the benefits bill, which included money for the Highway Trust Fund and certain COBRA health insurance benefits.
“I can tell you what I did,” Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) told “I voted to extend unemployment benefits and to do it without adding to the debt. I think that’s the right way to do it.”

Alexander supported Bunning on both votes on the benefits, once on Bunning’s amendment to fund them and again when he voted against adding their cost to the deficit.
Senator James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said that Bunning was right, but that the government had contractual obligations in highway construction it needed to fund.
“I think he's right, we need to be paying for these things,” Inhofe told  “My only concern was that we were in a crisis right now with our roads and our contracts and something had to be done. So that was the only difference of opinion I had. He's right, sure."

Retiring Sen. Christopher “Kit” Bond (R-Mo.) said that Bunning was right to object to the fact that the Senate never got the opportunity to debate how the benefits would be funded, something Bond said should have happened. Bunning’s objections forced a floor vote on whether the bill should be paid for, a measure Bond supported.
“First, we want to pay for things,” said Bond. “Secondly, the problem that Sen. Bunning likely objected (to) was that we didn't have an opportunity to vote on those issues, which we should have or like to do as members.”

Senator John Ensign (R-Nev.) said that he supported Bunning’s effort to hold Democrats to the pay-go rules they passed, rules he claimed they have no interest in following.
“It's what I voted for,” Ensign told “I mean, I voted the way that I voted because we are -- at what point do we say we're going to be fiscally responsible? They just passed pay-go and every new bill that comes up they won't pay for, so it's meaningless.”

“We ought to – my record is pretty clear on this – I offered amendment after amendment last year to freeze spending, they were voted down,” said Ensign. “I believe in fiscal responsibility. We're being fiscally irresponsible. I believe the benefits should have been extended, but they should have been paid for by spending cuts in other places.”
Democratic senators thought Bunning was wrong to hold up what they saw as emergency funding for highways and the unemployed. Senator Roland Burris (D-Ill.) said that Bunning was “incorrect” because Congress faced an “emergency matter” in extending benefits that were scheduled to run out.

“Senator Bunning, as all senators, has a position,” Burris told  “Unfortunately, his position was not correct on this issue because of the emergency matter -- in fact, affecting so many individuals throughout America. That was an emergency and thank God he relented and we got it done, and we can get people with unemployment checks and we can pay their COBRA and the doctors won’t have to stop treating Medicaid patients.”
Burris was referring to other provisions in the bill that would have extended COBRA health insurance for the unemployed and a provision which would have seen the government cut the reimbursement rates it pays to doctors who take Medicaid patients.
Senator Mark Udall (D-Colo.) said that while ideally Congress should act in a fiscally responsible manner, the severity of the recession meant that the benefits needed to be extended, even if Congress had to add to the deficit to do it.
“We have an economy that’s in a great recession,” Udall told “We have people who are out of work through no fault of their own. I believe that we should have emergency funding to keep people in a position where they can cover their mortgage payments, put food on the table while they look for work.”

“My vote says it all, I voted to extend that emergency funding,” said Udall. “I support a fiscally responsible federal government. But the time now is to help people who are really hurting, and then in the medium and long term put policies in place that begin to draw down those deficits.”
Udall, however, opposed Bunning’s amendment to pay for the benefit extensions through closing a tax loophole.
Senator Carl Levin (D-Mich.) told that unemployment benefits had always been dealt with as emergency spending and should continue that way, even though such a classification would exempt them from pay-go rules.
“I believe that the extension of unemployment benefits has always been dealt with as an emergency and should always continue to be,” Levin said. “That's my position.”

On his Web site, Sen. Bunning posted a statement that, in part, reads:  "For too long Congresses controlled by both Republican and Democrat majorities have not done a good enough job of controlling the spending of the taxpayers’ money. My stand over the last couple of days was not against those Kentuckians who are on the unemployment line. I support the underlying legislation and support those who are out of work and need a helping hand. What I do not support is the hypocrisy displayed by Senate Democrats. Just over a month ago Democrats passed pay-go legislation and then turned around and waived it for the next two major pieces of legislation that were considered by the Senate. What was the point of passing pay-go legislation? If Democrats continue to ignore their own rules I will oppose future legislation that is not paid for."