WASHINGTON – The Department of Transportation furloughed nearly 2,000 employees without pay Monday as the government began to feel the impact of Sen. Jim Bunning’s one-man blockage of legislation that would keep a host of federal programs operating.

The Kentucky Republican’s “hold” also affects jobless benefits for thousands of unemployed workers, rural television customers, doctors receiving Medicare payments and others.

In order to not drive up the deficit, Bunning wants the $10 billion price of extending the programs offset by cuts in spending elsewhere in the budget.

Absent that, his objections to proceeding with the legislation deny the Senate the “unanimous consent” that Senate rules require for going forward under expedited procedure. The Senate can overcome his objection if 60 of its 100 members vote to do so. So far, they haven’t, and doing that would take at least four days under Senate rules.

“I am keenly disappointed that political games are putting a stop to important construction projects around the country,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement. “This means that construction workers will be sent home from job sites because federal inspectors must be furloughed.”

Federal projects shut down include more than $38 million in project funding for two national forests in Idaho and $86 million for bridge replacements in the Washington, D.C., area. Bunning’s home state, Kentucky, has no projects affected by his action.

However, nearly 1.2 million unemployed workers — including 14,000 in Kentucky — would lose federal jobless benefits this month if Congress doesn’t extend them, according to the National Employment Law Project, a liberal-leaning research group. The U.S. Labor Department estimates that about one-third will lose benefits in the first two weeks of the month.

If Congress doesn’t take action, around 7,000 unemployed Maine workers would lose their benefits by the end of the month, according to the Maine Department of Labor. About 500 jobless Mainers face an immediate end to their unemployment benefits.

Letting the highway program lapse could mean an estimated 90,000 jobs lost. As many as 2 million families could lose access to local television because a copyright law expired overnight.

States hardest hit by the Monday cutoff, according to the law project, would be California, where an estimated 201,274 people could lose help, and Florida, where the total is an estimated 105,016. Other potential state totals: Georgia, 48,284; Texas, 82,850 and Illinois, 65,431.

Bunning defended his action Monday on the Senate floor:

“If we can’t find $10 billion to pay for it, then we’re not going to pay for anything. The debt that we have arrived at, even the head of the Federal Reserve Bank, Chairman (Ben) Bernanke, said it’s unsustainable.”

Just weeks ago, Congress passed legislation requiring that most new programs must be paid for rather than adding to the budget deficit. Asked why backers of these programs don’t find a way to pay for them, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said “This is an emergency stopgap.”

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky’s senior senator, was unhappy that unemployment benefits were allowed to lapse.

“Senator McConnell supports extending unemployment benefits and is disappointed they have expired,” said Robert Steurer, a spokesman. ” However, he hopes this issue is resolved quickly so that Kentuckians who are out of work will have their benefits restored soon.”


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.