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.
Bunning's "hold" also affects jobless benefits for thousands of unemployed workers, rural television customers, doctors receiving Medicare payments and others.
House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, a South Carolina Democrat, said 23,000 South Carolinians would immediately lose unemployment benefits because of the impasse in Washington caused by Bunning's hold. "These people are not out of work by choice," Clyburn said. "They're not working because of the tremendous downsizing in our economy."
Bunning, of Kentucky, rebuffed Democratic colleagues when they tried to get him to change his mind about blocking the programs' extension, according to Senate insiders who spoke on condition of anonymity. Bunning wants the $10 billion price of extending the programs offset by reductions in spending elsewhere in the budget. His home state doesn't have projects that will be affected by his action.
Federal agencies and lawmakers spent much of the weekend trying to assess the ripple effects of Bunning's actions.
According to the National Employment Law Project, a liberal research group, some 1.2 million unemployed workers, including 14,000 in Kentucky, would lose federal jobless benefits this month if Congress doesn't extend them. The U.S. Labor Department figures 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 television because a copyright law expired Sunday night.
According to the law project, states hardest hit by the Monday cutoff 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.
Friday afternoon, Bunning's regional offices in Hazard and Louisville received bomb threats, according to the Kentucky State Police. Bunning isn't running for a third term. Kentucky Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo, a Democratic candidate for Bunning's seat, pledged to hold a protest rally if unemployment benefits are not restored. Mongiardo also encouraged Kentuckians to call Bunning's offices to complain.
South Carolina GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham said he shares Bunning's opposition to increased deficit spending, but he criticized his fellow Republican senator. "When it comes to unemployment benefits, I don't think it's fair to punish people who've already lost their jobs," Graham said. "You have to be realistic sometimes."