News & Politics

Sen. Jim Bunning Wreaks Havoc on the Unemployed -- And His Own Republican Party

The batty Republican ends his jobs filibuster, but not before he brings further damage to his party's reputation.

UPDATE: Under pressure from members of his own party, Sen. Jim Bunning has abandoned his one-man filibuster of the bill that would extend unemployment benefits another 30 day to the hundreds of thousands whose claims expired on Monday. As reported here, the bill also includes funding for federal highway construction and a "fix" to scheduled cut in fees reimbursed to Medicare providers, among other provisions. A vote is expected tonight.

Roll Call reportsthat Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will allow Bunning to offer one amendment for a vote to address his stated concern that the bill must be paid for out of unspent stimulus money. Down the pike, when the Senate gets around to voting on a more comprehensive spending bill, Bunning will be allowed to offer two such amendments.

For a minute there,reportsMother Jones' Stephanie Mencimer, Bunning was a hero to the Tea Party crowd for holding the line on federal spending even if it meant putting the lives of out-of-work Americans at risk. Among those who backed Bunning's unilateral move were Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., a perennial Tea Party favorite, as well as Rand Paul, who is running for Bunning's Senate seat with the endorsement of Tea Party groups. (Rand Paul is the son of Rep. Ron Paul, R-Tex., whose quixotic 2008 presidential bid led to a first-place win in the straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference last month.)

There's a lot of things you can call Sen. Jim Bunning, R.-Ky., but you wouldn't ordinarily call him a friend to Democrats. But with his latest ploy -- one that will cause great pain to people whose unemployment benefits just expired, grind federal highway projects to a halt, and effect a fee-cut to doctors who take Medicare patients -- Bunning has written a script that could help Democrats campaigning for congressional seats in the mid-term elections.

Members of the majority party wasted no time in portraying Bunning's obstructionism as part of a grander GOP scheme that puts partisan interests ahead of the well-being of the American people, a notion that prompted one Republican senator to break ranks.

Today, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, stepped out from the GOP pack (whose members have largely remained silent on Bunning's antics) to call for passage of the measure. Bunning's response? "I object." And that was enough to scuttle it.

"It’s important that the American people understand that there is bipartisan support for extending these vital programs," Collins told reporters. "This is not a partisan issue. It only adds to the frustration of the American people when we are unable to act on a measure that has overwhelming support."

Collins is one of few, so far, who are willing to go on record against her out-of-control colleague, despite the cost to the American people, or even their own party.

It all began last week when, while gearing up for debate on a longer-term spending bill, Republicans and Democrats agreed to a stop-gap measure that would, among other things, extend unemployment benefits another 30 days. The measure quickly passed the House and was expected to do the same in the Senate until Bunning, who is retiring this year, voiced his objection to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's call for passage by unanimous consent. In the Senate, it may take 60 votes these days to pass virtually any piece of legislation, but it takes only one to stop a measure such as this.

As the week wore on, Bunning's behavior became more erratic. On Monday, when asked a question he didn't like, he flipped the bird at ABC News reporter Jonathan Karl. On Friday he spoke of his own sacrifice in perpetuating the filibiuster by which he holds up the bill: it caused him to miss a basketball game between Kentucky and South Carolina. (Jon Stewart breaks it down nicely here.) Even the partisanship-averse White House apparently gave spokesman Robert Gibbs license to call Bunning "irrational."

At stake are unemployment benefits for some 400,000 Americans who saw their claims expire on Monday. But that's not all: Because the bill also contains highway funding, the Department of Transportation was forced to furlough, without pay, some 2,000 employees. Without those employees on the job, a handful of highway projects around the country ground to halt, forcing the employees of contractors out of work until the funding issue is resolved. Construction is industry hardest-hit by the Great Recession.

Wait -- there's more: The failure to pass the spending measure leaves doctors who take Medicare patients slated for a 21-percent reduction in already-low fees, due to the stupidity of lawmaking on Medicare. (Every year, lawmakers vote some draconian cut in Medicare reimbursement fees, and then negate it via a "fix" folded into a larger spending bill.) In a bid to game the system, the Obama administration instructed Medicare providers to suspend billing for 10 days, until, presumably, the situation is resolved.

Then there's health-insurance coverage for the unemployed, who had been eligible for a 65 percent federal subsidy of their premium payments through COBRA, the program that allows people with employer-based coverage to maintain that plan for 18 months after they leave a company, provided they reimburse their former employer for the premium. Thanks to Bunning, tens of thousands could lose their health insurance in addition to the gap in their basic unemployment benefit until lawmakers find a way around the Kentucky senator.

Also jammed up in the Bunning muck is the federal flood insurance program and loans to small businesses.

Bunning claims his fly in the ointment to be that the package unfunded; he's insisting that it be paid for out of unspent stimulus money that is reserved for other programs and projects. Because the unemployment extension package is an emergency measure, Senate leaders contend it is exempt from the pay-as-you-go rules recently enacted by the Senate. Otherwise, he says, he's all for the package.

But the real reason for Bunning's recalcitrance may be more personal -- and designed to embarrass Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, also of Kentucky, whose relationship with Bunning is anything but cozy. The reason he's retiring this year from the Senate, Bunning told reporters, is that McConnell stiffed him on campaign funding for a re-election campaign.

Jim Bunning may very well be holding citizens -- many who are on the brink of disaster, if not already there -- hostage to a revenge fantasy, one in which Mitch McConnell fails to gain seats in the Senate because he messed with Jim Bunning. In so doing, it seems, the Senate minority leader may have spit in the wind, to the detriment of us all.



Adele M. Stan is AlterNet's Washington bureau chief.
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