Unemployment insurance and COBRA benefits will expire Sunday for millions of voters because the Senate was unable this week to pass a short-term extension, a failure that reflects partly the partisan gridlock that has stalled the Democratic legislative agenda and partly the Senate rules that allows one lawmaker to block legislation.
But the Senate will likely be able to renew them with a Tuesday vote. Democrats are expected to take up a broader bill next week, the second in their “jobs agenda” that will extend the benefits, among many other provisions – including popular tax extenders – for one year.
The bill is expected to pass by the end of next week.
The latest stalemate, however, produced a rare, late-night partisan floor brawl between two scrappy senators.
In the red corner is Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., whose decision not to seek re-election this year has made him a wildcard. He has blocked a $10 billion bill that extends the benefits for 30 days because he wants to lay out how the extension will be paid for, preferably with unallocated stimulus funds.
In the blue corner is Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., who, along with other Democrats told Bunning no way because the extension is an emergency and shouldn’t come with any offsets.
The battle lasted for hours Thursday when Durbin sought unanimous consent, a move that forced Bunning to object each time to uphold his filibuster.
“It is unthinkable, unforgivable that we would cut off unemployment insurance payments to these people, that we would cut off COBRA payments, which helps them to pay for their health insurance while they’re unemployed,” he said. “And yet, that’s what’s going to happen Sunday night. It’s because the senator from Kentucky has objected to extending unemployment insurance payments and COBRA health insurance payments for 30 days.”
Bunning decried the move and was joined by Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who accused Democrats of a “sneak attack.” Corker vowed to stay on the floor with Bunning all night.
Durbin said he was defending out-of-work Americans, that he would love to be home because he is “no spring chicken."
Bunning told Durbin that he would not object if the senator agreed to adopt his or any amendment that would pay for the bill.
But Durbin said Bunning rejected a chance earlier in the week to offer that amendment for an up or down vote.
When Bunning tried to offer an amendment Thursday that would offset the spending, Durbin objected.
“The present level of debt is unsustainable,” Bunning said. “I have too many grandchildren that want to grow up in the same America that I grew up in,” he said.
In the end, it was a draw, although Bunning won the battle.
While Democrats have ganged up on Bunning for his actions, Republicans have blamed Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid for the benefits expiring. Reid had a chance to renew unemployment benefits with the first jobs bill that passed before he decided to dramatically scale back the proposal.
Fox News' Trish Turner contributed to this report.