Deja Vu Again: One-Man Senate Filibuster Imperils Federal Transport Law

A familiar script for Washington infrastructure watchers began to unfold last night on the Senate floor, as House-side resistance to a 10-month extension of existing federal transportation law prompted Democratic leaders to seek a quick deal on a one-month stopgap — the fourth such short-term move in six months. Jim Bunning (R-KY) (Photo: CNN)

But one GOP senator, the notoriously irascible Jim Bunning (KY), objected to the 30-day extension, which also would ensure continued payment of federal unemployment benefits. When Democrats pleaded with Bunning to drop his one-man filibuster effort, Politico heard the retiring Kentuckian offer a terse response: "Tough s–t."

If an extension cannot be passed before the 2005 transportation law officially expires at midnight on Sunday, the result would be a quasi-shutdown of operations at U.S. DOT. A source at the agency told Streetsblog Capitol Hill that all employees of the Federal Highway Administration, save for its chief, would be sent home and states would stop getting reimbursed for their spending on all road projects.

The Federal Transit Administration would see a similar freeze, the U.S. DOT source said, with contract authority to fund local projects sitting in limbo until Congress acts. Perhaps the most untimely delay would occur at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), where regulators are ramping up their oversight efforts after the Toyota recall debacle.

"[I]t is simply unfair for one senator
to attempt to hold the Senate hostage,” Dick Durbin (D-IL), the upper chamber’s No. 2 leader, said last night in a statement.

Where does that leave Democrats? Working furiously to break through Bunning’s roadblock, even as more House members join transportation committee chairman Jim Oberstar (D-MN) in raising objections to the Senate jobs bill that would keep existing federal programs intact until 2011.

Oberstar and about two dozen members of his panel take issue with the Senate jobs bill’s treatment of $932 million in grants that would be spent this year as part of a 10-month extension of existing transport law. Giving that money to states using the template of 2009 earmarks — as the Senate jobs bill proposes — would direct the majority of the money to four states, leaving 22 states with nothing.

A letter sent earlier this week by 23 members of the transportation committee asks for the grant money to be given out on a "discretionary, competitive" basis. However, Oberstar spokesman Jim Berard said in an interview that the chairman has offered a compromise that would allocate the funding based on existing federal transportation formulas.

Berard said that Oberstar would prefer to see the $932 million allocated competitively to projects rather than distributed by formula. But he acknowledged the reasoning behind the Senate’s argument that applying for the funding would not facilitate quick job creation. "If we’re not going to make it competitive," Berard said, "at least let’s make it equitable."

At the moment, the House appears unlikely to act on the jobs legislation until at least next week, giving Oberstar and his panel more time to reach agreement with senators — and heightening the drama of Bunning’s Senate floor show.

  • Wow, Voinovich and Bunning might want to talk with each other. They seem to have different approaches to what a retirement year looks like. Maybe they could meet somewhere along the Ohio River and chat about how important it is to fix major infrastucture like the multiple bridges between their states that get bad safety ratings.

  • Mister Bad Example

    This was also featured on huffpost. There are about 1.3 million people whose unemployment goes away if this clown doesn’t relent (and Kentucky itself is 10.7% unemployed). I’d expect some major arm twisting to happen today even if his own party won’t do it.

    What’s interesting is that he isn’t voting against the extensions–he’s voting against the right of the senate to vote on the bills themselves. This is about grandstanding on the deficit.

  • We need a video showing 1)Bunning filibustering and 2)interviews with people who are laid off on Monday because of him.

  • drosejr

    Bunning’s point, and one that many democrats including Obama have been making, is that there are no additional revenues or spending cuts elsewhere to pay for the jobs bill – just more deficit spending. While he may not be covering himself with glory in how he is single-handedly holding up this bill, and he is playing hard-ball politics given many of this funding runs out on Sunday, his point is worth making. Both sides have been paying lip service for far too long about cutting the deficit and instituting pay-go. Bunning obviously feels he has nothing to lose by making his point.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “Both sides have been paying lip service for far too long about cutting the deficit and instituting pay-go. Bunning obviously feels he has nothing to lose by making his point.”

    Funny he should choose infrastructure investment to make his point. How did he vote on the prescription drug plan for Medicare?

    The debate is over how the next generation should be screwed, not whether or not. And speaking of retirement years, the first thing that should be cut is the pensions of this generation of feckless elected officials.

  • ds

    This is how the Polish parliament worked in the 18th century. A single member could block all legislative action. Poland was so politically paralyzed it disappeared as a country until it was reestablished after WW1.

    Bunning deserves to be expelled from Congress for this. These single-person holds on legislation and appointments are grossly unconstitutional. The fact that Senate rules allow this is insane.

    The Senate isn’t the chummy club it was in the past. “Unanimous consent” is no longer going to be a basic formality like it’s always been, with senators like Bunning.

  • Correct me if I’m wrong, but aren’t anonymous holds time-limited to about two weeks? (The original intention behind them was to let a Senator hold a bill temporarily in order to study it.) It’s not like with the filibuster, which can kill a bill forever.

  • ” “If we can’t find $10 billion somewhere for a bill that everybody in this body supports, we will never pay for anything. So I continue my objection,” Bunning said.”

    I hate to say this, but he has a good point. If this bill is so damn critical, and everybody wants it….why can’t there be money taken from elsewhere? I hear the military has a bottomless budget.

  • Mister Bad Example

    Much as I’d like the money to come out of defense appropriations or someplace similar, that’s not how the continuing resolutions work–declaring that the money has to come out of some other already-allocated amount means the Senate has to re-open THAT authorization and re-open THAT authorization for debate. The Stim is vulnerable because the extra is being used for more stim, contrary to the wishes of the minority (which wants unused funds in tax cuts).

    It’s a moot point trying to use this as a stealth attack on the defense department since Bunning gave the DOD carte blanche on the wars and the continuing authorizations.

    This grandstand is just going to make some people uncomfortable for a few weeks.

  • Paul_Brooklyn

    Heh. “notoriously irascible”.
    How about, “monumental dickhead”?


Bunning Throws in the Towel, Congress Restores Transport Funding

Workers at the U.S. DOT and on transportation projects around the country are back on the job today after Sen. Jim Bunning (R-KY) lost his politically hazardous battle against a 30-day extension of federal infrastructure law and unemployment benefits. Sen. Jim Bunning (R-KY) (Photo: CNN) But while Republicans sought to distance themselves from Bunning’s five-day […]

Federal Transportation Law Expired Over the Weekend: What’s Next?

A new month begins today without rules in place to govern federal transportation programs, thanks to an objection by Sen. Jim Bunning (R-KY) to quick approval of a short-term extension of existing law. The Natchez Trace Parkway, where trail construction is set to stall today thanks to inaction on federal transport law. (Photo: The […]

Transport Policy Update: Senate to Pass 6-Month Extension This Week

Before week’s end, the Senate will pass a six-month extension of the nation’s four-year-old transportation law — setting the stage for another showdown with the House, where transportation committee chairman Jim Oberstar remains on the fence about abandoning the push for a new long-term bill before 2010. Photo: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) […]