WASHINGTON — The Department of Transportation furloughed nearly 2,000 employees without pay Monday as the government began to feel the impact of Republican Sen. Jim Bunning's one-man blockage of legislation that would keep a host of federal programs operating.
His "hold" also affects jobless benefits for thousands of unemployed workers, rural television customers, doctors receiving Medicare payments and others.
"As American families are struggling in tough economic times, I am keenly disappointed that political games are putting a stop to important construction projects around the country," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said. "This means that construction workers will be sent home from job sites because federal inspectors must be furloughed."
Bunning of Kentucky wants the $10 billion price of extending the programs offset by reductions in spending elsewhere in the budget to not drive up the deficit. Absent that, his objections to proceed 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.
Bunning's home state 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.
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.
The state hardest hit by the Monday cutoff, according to the law project, would be California, where an estimated 201,274 people could lose help. The U.S. Labor Department says 49,600 people in Florida face a loss of unemployment benefits.
The Senate will act today at the earliest, but approval is likely to be delayed until later in the week. Once the Senate passes the measure, it still must pass the House.