Republican Sen. Tom Coburn on Thursday stood in the way of Democrats passing a $10 billion month-long extension of unemployment insurance, insisting that it be paid for instead of adding to the nation’s debt, which many fear is spiraling out of control.
Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican known for being principled and stubborn, said in a nearly hour-long speech on the Senate floor that to bypass the pay-as-you-go law signed by President Obama in February – which Democrats are trying to do for the fourth time since then by declaring the expenditure an emergency – would be “immoral.”
Coburn said he agreed that as the nation deals with 9.7 percent unemployment “we ought to be helping those people,” but said that giving aid to the jobless was “less good” than starting to make tough choices about paying for government expenditures, which he said is “absolutely necessary.”
“What I don’t agree with is doing those good things on the back of our grandchildren,” Coburn said.
The reason, he said, is because the nation is piling up debt faster than it can pay for it – the national debt currently stands at $12.7 trillion – and risks losing its status as a dominant nation “like the Athenian Empire.”
A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, accused Coburn of “using the unemployed as political pawns.”
“Once again, Republicans are obstructing an attempt to provide urgently needed unemployment insurance benefits for millions of hardworking Americans,” said Reid spokesman Jim Manley said.
“Rarely, if ever, do we pay for extensions of unemployment insurance benefits,” Manley told reporters.
Coburn blocked the Senate from passing the benefits by objecting to its introduction on the Senate floor. To introduce any measure there must be unanimous consent from all senators.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, proposed that the Senate pay for the unemployment insurance with unused funds from the $787 billion stimulus bill. But Senate Democrats voted down that idea by a party-line vote of 59-to-40.
Reid huddled with top Democratic leadership on the floor of the Senate for more than an hour. Reid was preparing to postpone a vote until April 12, when they return from a two-week recess, a Republican aide said.
But the aide said that at least nine Senate Democrats were prepared to vote against Reid on a motion to adjourn, insisting that the unemployment insurance be passed before the Senate leaves town.
If Democrats do not agree to pay for the expenditure, and Coburn does not relent, then the Senate could be in session through the weekend or even possibly into next week, which the Senate is scheduled to have off so lawmakers can go home the week before Easter.
“If somebody had plans, I apologize that those plans might be disrupted. I have plans. And they’re going to get disrupted,” Coburn said. “But I don’t apologize for having the legitimate debate on whether or not we grow a spine.”
Manley said that Reid planned on being at a shooting range in Henderson, Nevada on Saturday.
Less than a month ago, Sen. Jim Bunning, Kentucky Republican, blocked the last one-month extension of benefits for five days, and was vilified for doing so.
Coburn, however, is a different political animal. Though he is often lampooned by some on the left, he is regarded with a grudging respect by many in the Senate, and also made clear from the beginning Thursday that his principal goal is to make sure the expenditure is paid for.