Senate Standoff — Update from D-C

By Libby Casey

The U-S Senate has reached a deal that will allow it to move forward and soon reinstate unemployment benefits.  Since Thursday, Republican Kentucky Senator Jim Bunning had single-handedly blocked the short-term extension of unemployment benefits and other popular measures.  But this evening he accepted a deal to allow the $10-billion aid bill to advance.  

Bunning’s stance put Senator Lisa Murkowski and her fellow Republican colleagues in a politically awkward tight spot while Democrats like Senator Mark Begich railed against the hold-up.

Programs that expired over the weekend include long term unemployment benefits, health care subsidies for the unemployed, highway funds, and a measure that boosted Medicare payments to doctors.

In Alaska, the halt in federal highway money put two projects on hold for a couple of days: construction on the Coffman Cove dock and a road cleanup project in the Tongass National Forest.  The federal highway employees overseeing the projects have been on furlough.

State transportation projects with federal funding haven’t been affected, according to Jeff Ottesen, the Alaska Department of Transportation’s director of program development.  He says the state is not getting a weekly federal reimbursement to the tune of about $4-million, but the money should eventually come in once Congress moves forward.  In the meantime, Ottesen says the projects have proceeded with state funds.

What’s affecting state managed projects is, we’re still able to do the work, what’s being delayed is that reimbursement process.

Ottesen says, however, that D-O-T could not move forward on new projects.  That’s because employees in the Juneau office of the Federal Highway Administration have been on furlough and couldn’t give them the green-light.

For projects that we need approval to start, either a design start or a construction start, we’ll keep sending them over there, but basically they’ll be in their mailbox waiting for them to return to work.

Ottesen says it would’ve been far worse if the transportation funds continued to be locked up for weeks on end.

Senator Bunning was blocking the federal funding because he wanted the $10-billion aid package paid for with stimulus funds, rather than adding to the national debt.  In exchange for releasing his lock on the bill, Bunning is introducing an amendment tonight that addresses how to pay for it.

His fellow Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski did not respond to requests for comment today about Bunning’s action.


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