Kentucky Republican Jim Bunning had beenfor days but conceded after pressure intensified with Monday's cutoff of road funding and extended unemployment benefits and health insurance subsidies for the jobless.
Bunning wanted to force Democrats to find ways to finance the bill so that it wouldn't add to the deficit, but his move sparked a political tempest that subjected Republicans to withering media coverage and cost the party politically. Bunning's support among Republicans was dwindling, while Democrats used to being on the defensive over health care and the deficit seemed to relish the battle.
The bill passed by a 78-19 vote across party lines. It passed the House last week and President Barack Obama is likely to sign the bill into law quickly so that 2,000 furloughed Transportation Department workers can go back to work on Wednesday.
Doctors faced the prospect of a 21 percent cut in Medicare payments, and federal flood insurance programs had lapsed with Monday's expiration of an earlier stopgap bill that passed late last year. Medicare is the government program that provides health care coverage to the elderly.
Tuesday's action will provide a monthlong extension of the expired programs to give Congress time to pass a yearlong - and far more costly - fix that's also pending.
Without the legislation, about 200,000 jobless people would have lost federal benefits this week alone, according to the liberal-leaning National Employment Law Project. Jobless people normally get 26 weeks of unemployment benefits and 20 more weeks in states with higher unemployment rates. The legislation extends several additional layers of benefits added since 2008 because of the stubborn recession.
Earlier on Tuesday, Bunning objected to a request by Maine Sen. Susan Collins, a fellow Republican, to pass a 30-day extension of jobless benefits and other expired measures.
When asked Tuesday if Bunning was hurting the Republican Party, Collins said, "He's hurting the American people."
Other Republicans were more diplomatic in their assessments of Bunning, who has a stubborn and often irascible personality. Bunning is reluctantly retiring at the end of the current term and enjoys a tense relationship with homestate colleague and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who privately urged Bunning to step aside.
Bunning had blocked the stopgap legislation since Thursday, insisting that Democrats find offsetting revenues or spending cuts to finance the bill. Instead, he settled for a vote to close a tax loophole enjoyed by paper companies that get a credit from burning "black liquor," a pulp-making byproduct, as if it were an alternative fuel. The amendment failed.
Dick Durbin of Illinois, the Senate's No. 2 Democrat, said that Bunning was accepting an offer that he had rejected for days.
"As a result ... unemployment benefits were cut off for thousands of people across America, assistance for health care was cut off across America, thousands of federal employees were furloughed," Durbin said.
Democrats promised to retroactively restore unemployment benefits and health care subsidies for the unemployed. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood ordered furloughed employees back to work Wednesday.
The impasse had led to political gains for Democrats attacking Bunning and his fellow Republicans. Major cable news networks carried Tuesday morning's proceedings live and returned to the topic frequently.
"Today we have a clear-cut example to show the American people just what's wrong with Washington, D.C.," Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state, said. "That is because today one single Republican senator is standing in the way of the unemployment benefits of 400,000 Americans."