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 freeze of its own, 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.

Late Update: Congress and state DOTs are now preparing in earnest for a federal transportation shutdown come Monday. Oberstar told reporters this afternoon that the "astonishing" Senate gridlock would result in the loss of $153 million in reimbursements for highway projects and $31 million in transit reimbursements during each day that Congress goes without extending the existing law.

The ramifications were felt as early as yesterday in Missouri, where officials canceled a scheduled bid for road and bridge projects of all types, anticipating a possible loss of funding from Washington. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce released a statement warning that "thousands of jobs are at risk" due to Bunning’s ongoing objections. Meanwhile, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) told reporters this afternoon that she expects the House to take up the Senate jobs bill next week, though she did not hint at how Oberstar and his panel’s criticism of the plan would be resolved.

Rob Puentes of the Brookings Institution, writing on The New Republic’s blog, sounded an ominous note about the shutdown’s effect on the long-stalled transportation debate:

Despite earnest and sustained calls
for a long term national commitment to infrastructure little progress
is being made. Not to put too fine a point on it: but if Congress can
dismiss the program in place today and risk a shutdown, it does not
bode well for comprehensive reform.

  • Erik W

    Hooray for my home state!

  • Arlene

    bye bye, Bunning aka redneck trash.

  • MAT

    The good bourbon drinkers of Kentucky should be proud. Hopefully they elect another mindless “Conservative” neanderthal to carry Bunning’s dim torch as America continues on its path to oblivion.

  • Here in Missouri, our DOT just delayed new projects until federal funding is settled. This potentially delays a very high-profile project to retrofit a bridge over the Missouri River for bike/ped access.

  • Lavern wilson

    We have allowed this nation to fall, we did not step in when federal reserve thought they knew best, now we rely on the same leadership, the leadership that is to guide the people during their everyday struggles that we are all to familiar with. We can accept the past disappointments in Congress, when countries around the globe may have reasons to doubt us, today we can’t continue to allow the people living in our states throughtout this nation to continue that trend.

    How do we accommodate the way our people need to live and travel! Congress has a job, are we doing it?


  • jc

    Let’s just briefly look at the other side of the coin. How was one senator able to do this. Simple, It was more important for most of the Senate to take the day off and go home when there was an important vote. This wasn’t a filibuster, it was an objection to a voice only vote. Because he objected to a voice vote there wasn’t a vote. Either way you come down on the issue the real problem is all the Senators that weren’t at work to represent their constituencies.

  • So, Erik W., I take it you are not from my home state of Kentucky!!

  • It’s tough being blue collar, having a blue neck and living in a red(neck) state; I can only hope that my rantings coupled with those of other kentuckians who grandly smarter than the so very undistinguished senator… will happily replace him with someone very different – preferably someone who is not so – how do i say – RED!!!

  • Hey MAT – I’m not a good bourbon drinker and I’m sure not proud of this senator I did not help elect! I’m ecstatic he’s not running again – but unlike you, I genuinely hope for the sake of us Kentuckians who are blue state at heart (i.e. liberals), that we do NOT elect another mindless neanderthal like Mr. Bunning!

  • MAT

    abbycat, no offense intended. I’ve had the pleasure of knowing a few Louisvillians in my life and they’re all super-cool urban-minded left-leaning folks. Also, I love a good bourbon, regardless of the makers’ political tendencies. I’ll raise a glass to your prospects for electing a more open-minded Senator.

  • ‘…they’re all super-cool urban-minded left-leaning folks…’

    And that is supposed to make us think they are any less wrong?

    Bunning seems to have picked the absolutely worst bill to make a principaled stand on with Pay As You Go, which the Dems did pass….another way to pass teh buck for doing nothing.

    We need our representatives to govern and not just politic and fund raise, there needs to be compromise and ideas FROM BOTH SIDES of the isle. I hold little hope that either party as now constituted has any solutions to any problems we face. Reminds me of trench warfare circa 1916 and teh description of the armies as being ‘Lions led by Donkeys’….the donkeys are not from any one party but are both sides of the spectrum

  • Being super cool or urban minded doesn’t matter to me… I’ve never been either one. However, Mat’s post was in response to mine – denoting how Kentuckians are usually portrayed as all being toothless, mindless, and living off the government. As with all things, the truth – if there is such a thing in politics – resides elsewhere, just not in DC.

    Amidst all these adjectives is the real problem and, in this case, the problem really is a person. He has one foot out the door and couldn’t care less how he “stirs it up”. Do I think he waited till now to make a noble point … NO! I think he’s sitting back laughing, drawing a paycheck, and knowing he’ll still get one when all this is over. It doesn’t matter whether he is democrat, republican, or whig… he’s just enjoying his time in the spotlight.

    Let’s face it, the political success of our country requires bipartisanship which in turn requires compromise. And in order to make my point, I’ll write my opinion on that the real Kentucky way (except without expletives) …. “that ain’t never gonna fly!”!


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