Jim Oberstar, aka “Mr. Transportation,” led Friday's House attack against Sen. Jim Bunning, a Kentucky Republican who has tied Congress up in knots with his one-man filibuster of federal road projects that expire Sunday.
“The Senate is so obscure,” Oberstar said of the upper chamber, where a single member can hold up legislative action by withholding so-called unanimous consent. “One person gets their nose out of joint about something, and it brings the whole place to a halt.”
Actually, Bunning’s maneuver does a lot more than that. Without a planned 30-day extension, Oberstar said the feds will have to furlough thousands of transportation workers on Tuesday, temporarily shutting down a range of government highway and transit programs.
Oberstar said it reminds him of the GOP’s 1995 federal government shutdown, “in microcosm.”
Until the situation is resolved, states will also stop getting reimbursed for spending on highway and road projects.
The standoff with Bunning, who is retiring from the Senate this year, could easily drag well into next week. The Kentuckian’s issue: He wants to pay for the extension with stimulus dollars rather than new spending.
The road and transit programs were due to expire last September, but have been kept alive by a series of extensions while Congress considers comprehensive new transportation legislation.
The extension also would ensure payment of federal unemployment benefits.
Oberstar, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, has been causing headaches of his own this week, raising objections to the way highway funds are doled out under a $15 billion jobs bill Democrats are eager to pass.
The veteran Iron Range DFLer is one of dozens of House Democrats objecting to formulas in the Senate version that allocate more than half of the money for highway projects to four states: California, Illinois, Washington and Louisiana.
Ironically, Minnesota would fare better under the Senate version that Oberstar opposes. The state would get $25 million under the Senate-passed bill, compared to $15.5 million under the House-proposed formula that Oberstar favors.
“Oberstar is not being parochial about this,” said Transportation Committee spokesman Jim Berard. “He wants the process to be fair to all states.”
Even as he railed against Bunning’s “arbitrary and willful action,” Oberstar was announcing a deal with Senate leaders that will address his concerns about the jobs bill.
That should give Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid one less thing to worry about.