The US senator depriving millions of their benefits

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Even by its own standards of sclerosis, the US Senate broke new ground yesterday by failing for a second time to pass a bill to extend unemployment and other benefits to millions of Americans after an objection raised not by either of the two parties, but by a solitary, soon-to-retire member.

The senator at the centre of the dispute is Jim Bunning, a one-time baseball star who is coming to the end of his second, and last, term representing Kentucky. Far out on the conservative wing of the Republican Party, he is single-handedly blocking the adoption of a bill that would keep the benefits flowing, even though it has overwhelming bipartisan support.

Everyone is getting cross with Senator Bunning, including members of his own party, who fear a serious backlash if he is not persuaded to let go of the procedural lever that has allowed him to prevent the bill reaching the floor for a vote. He was lashed for his actions yesterday also by Democrats and the White House.

His problem has to do with money. With the deficit growing faster than fungus in a bog, Washington is these days following so-called "paygo rules". In other words, any bill must be paid for before it becomes law. But bills that are emergency spending, which this one is, are exempt. That, says Bunning, is bad policy and hypocritical. From his desk at the back of the Senate chamber, Bunning has at least 10 times prevented the Democrats from renewing the programmes in question. Few Republicans have come to the floor to defend him as he has endured hours of Democratic criticism.

A fellow Republican, Senator Susan Collins of Maine, was blunt. "It's important that the American people understand that there is bipartisan support for extending these vital programmes – this is not a partisan issue," she said. "It only adds to the frustration of the American people when we are unable to act on a measure that has overwhelming support."

Anybody who saw their benefits run out over the weekend will be turned down for renewed support until the law is passed. The White House, smelling Republican blood, also went after the senator. "This is an emergency situation," Robert Gibbs, a White House spokesman, insisted. "Hundreds of thousands have been left in the lurch.... I don't know how you negotiate the irrational."

Linda Calvin, who lives in Kentucky and has been without work since May, is one of those left unimpressed.

"Washington doesn't get it because they are not unemployed," she told CNN. "They're not affected by the unemployment rate. They're not affected by the people who can't pay their rent. They're not affected by people who can't buy groceries for their children. They're not affected by any of these things."