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Senator holds up bill compensating furloughed Transportation workers

Alyssa Rosenberg | Government Executive

March 15, 2010

A Republican senator is holding up legislation that would prevent Transportation Department workers furloughed earlier this month from losing pay.

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said he is upset by the bill’s funding mechanism.

“Time and time again, Congress intentionally waits until the last minute to consider important legislation and then declares the billions of dollars in foreseeable costs as emergency spending in order to avoid having to find a way to pay the bills’ price tags,” Coburn wrote in a letter to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., putting a hold on the bill.

The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., would make sure the nearly 2,000 Transportation workers who were furloughed for two days in early March when Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., blocked a 30-day extension of the Highway Trust Fund would be compensated for that time. An extension eventually passed, and the employees were able to return to their jobs.

The House approved Connolly’s bill Wednesday in a 418-1 vote.

Coburn wrote that he did not believe the furloughed workers should be penalized “because of Congress’ inability to maintain core federal programs.” Rather, he wants to see them paid out of Congress’ own budget as opposed to Transportation funds, as a way to punish lawmakers for the delay and their own lack of planning. The price tag would come to $2,000 per congressional office, Coburn said.

Connolly also criticized Senate procedures when he introduced his bill, saying the Transportation workers “became unwitting victims of an arcane practice in the upper chamber that allows one member’s objection, no matter how specious, to grind to a halt the work of the American people.”

But he urged the Senate to pass his bill quickly, noting it garnered strong Republican support in the House.

“The Republicans themselves established this principle [of repaying furloughed employees] in 1996 when they made restoration payments to more than 800,000 employees who were furloughed after a lengthy government shutdown,” he said.

Coburn said the real-world impact of customs such as the filibuster and more generalized delays in dealing with important legislation should be acknowledged.

“Congress’ inability to prioritize and manage national needs results in real consequences for Americans, whether it be furloughs, market uncertainty that leads to lower investment and job losses, or Americans being saddled with higher debt and taxes,” Coburn wrote.

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