Jobless Bill Passes After Senator Bunning Relents

Carl Hulse|The New York Times

The Senate headed reached a resolution of an impasse over unemployment pay on Tuesday night after Senator Jim Bunning, Republican of Kentucky, dropped his objection to extending jobless benefits in exchange for a largely symbolic vote on paying for the aid.

Senator Jim Bunning of Kentucky

Mr. Bunning’s agreement to relent essentially short-circuited an intensifying political battle that had already resulted in 2,000 workers at the Department of Transportation being furloughed without pay and in the temporary cutoff of benefits to thousands of out-of-work Americans.

It came after Mr. Bunning’s fellow Republicans began to air their own concerns about how the Senate blockade had the potential to damage their political brand while also having a direct impact on their constituents. The Senate later voted 78 to 19 to renew the programs.

While Democrats hailed the progress, they also said Mr. Bunning’s decision to delay the aid had caused serious disruptions in federal programs and could create bureaucratic problems as people tried to reclaim their federal aid.

“Sometimes just because we have the power to do things, we ought to think twice before we use that power,” said Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate.

With Mr. Bunning’s battle quickly becoming a national cause célèbre, Senator Mitch Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader and Mr. Bunning’s home-state colleague, made clear earlier that Republicans were trying to end the stalemate.

And Senator Susan Collins of Maine, a moderate Republican colleague of the conservative Mr. Bunning, joined Democrats in trying to force the measure through, calculating that perhaps a plea from a fellow Republican would get him to change his position.

“When I was home this weekend, I talked to constituents who expressed their utter bafflement that Congress could not proceed on something that has widespread support,” Ms. Collins said.

While trying to blame Democrats for mishandling the entire matter, other Republicans also distanced themselves from Mr. Bunning, whom Democrats were holding up as the embodiment of what they say has been a maddening pattern of Republican obstruction in the Senate.

“This is one senator,” said Senator John Cornyn of Texas, a chief political strategist for Senate Republicans. “This does not represent the position of the caucus.”

Other party officials said that while the Bunning fight was not helpful, it probably would not do serious damage as long as it ended rapidly.

Republicans were not just unhappy that the back-and-forth was allowing Democrats and editorial writers around the country to portray them as heartless curmudgeons, denying jobless aid to struggling Americans while Mr. Bunning complained that late-night debate was preventing him from watching a college basketball game.

The attention to the impasse was also cutting into Republican efforts to focus on the evolving Democratic strategy on the health care overhaul, which Republicans are trying to portray as an end-run around Senate rules. Instead, Democrats were having a field day citing Mr. Bunning’s repeated objections as evidence of how Republicans abuse the rules to delay needed legislation, helping them build a case in favor of using any available tools to overcome such opposition.

Complicating the situation was the fact that Mr. McConnell and Mr. Bunning have a tortured relationship because Mr. McConnell was instrumental last year in making it difficult for Mr. Bunning to seek a third term. The rift left Mr. McConnell with little leverage to apply to get his fellow Kentuckian to retreat.

Not all senators were engaged in Bunning-bashing. “He’s my hero this week,” said Senator Jim DeMint, the conservative Republican from South Carolina, who said Mr. Bunning was exposing Democratic hypocrisy of embracing budget controls but adding spending like the employment aid to the deficit. “We have to quit complaining about unsustainable debt and passing new spending programs every week.”

The fight spread to the House as well, with Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, the Republican leader, saying Mr. Bunning has “got a legitimate argument that he’s making.”

At the same time, dozens of House Democrats sharply criticized Mr. Bunning, with Representative John Yarmuth of Kentucky saying he was “embarrassed that a senator from Kentucky is holding our government hostage.”

Last week the House passed the bill at issue, which provided a 30-day extension of unemployment benefits, health insurance subsidies for the jobless, the highway construction program and a handful of other expiring programs to allow Congress to work out more permanent legislation. Mr. Bunning almost immediately began lodging his objections, insisting that the unemployment help be offset by money from other sources.

As a result, the programs lapsed as of Sunday, forcing the Department of Transportation to furlough 2,000 workers without pay on Monday and shut down dozens of construction projects.

In addition, jobless benefits began running out for thousands of workers across the country, though a broader measure now before the Senate would restore them retroactively.

Even as negotiations toward a resolution continued, a parade of Senate Democrats kept up vigorous expressions of displeasure with Mr. Bunning.

“I come to the floor of the Senate to say to my colleague from Kentucky,” Senator Barbara A. Mikulski, Democrat of Maryland intoned Tuesday with a bit of biblical fervor, “let the unemployment bill go.”

- Peter Baker and Robert Pear contributed reporting.