Sunday, February 28, 2010

Bunning Attacked, Republicans Unscathed

Is this a metaphor for Republican obstructionism and Democratic acquiescence? (Or is "metaphor" the wrong term?)

The Associated Press reports

Sen. Jim Bunning on Tuesday again blocked the Senate from extending unemployment benefits and health insurance subsidies for the jobless.

The Kentucky Republican objected Tuesday to a request by Maine Sen. Susan Collins, a fellow Republican, to pass a 30-day extension of jobless benefits and other expired measures. The measure would also extend highway programs and prevent a big cut in Medicare payments to doctors.

John Fritze writes in USA Today:

Democrats ramped up political pressure on Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., who is blocking the $10 billion bill because he wants Congress to pay for it with unused economic stimulus funds.

Even Mike Madden at Salon:

Democrats have spent the day blasting the Kentucky Republican, whose personal filibuster against extending unemployment benefits past Monday's expiration date means about 400,000 Americans are in jeopardy of not getting checks they're entitled to.

Politico joined in:

The Kentucky GOP senator’s unilateral decision to block an extension of federally funded unemployment benefits and other popular provisions has united Democrats and sent Republicans hiding from the political backlash.

That's the company line- the company being the GOP-friendly corporate media- even if it's not entirely accurate. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) noted "it’s wrong to call this Jim Bunning’s filibuster. It was a Republican filibuster, as they offered “passive support.”

That was on the morning of Saturday, February 24, when Tennessee's Bob Corker, Alabama's Jeff Sessions, and Texas' John Cornyn, the latter being one of the five members of the GOP Senate leadership, were aiding Bunning. Jon Kyl of Arizona now has jumped in to help. This support is critical; as The New York Times reports "And Republicans said they were willing to hang tough like Mr. Bunning, who could not leave the floor since Democrats could have then pushed the proposal through without him being present to object."

Bunning has opposed unanimous consent for the continuing resolution and initiated the filibuster because, he says, the bill is unpaid for and thus would contribute to the deficit. No cheap shots here about Bunning's support for the tax cuts for the wealthy and the preventable war (funded partly off-budget) in Iraq championed by the President of his own party, or his vote against Paygo. (A cheap shot would be pithier.) Or that Bunning turned down Senate Majority Leader Reid's offer for a vote on paying for the current bill with unused stimulus funds, which the Kentuckian had said he wanted done. Or that the stunt has resulted in a 21% cut in Medicare fees to doctors, a curious move for a party that is wringing its hands over alleged cuts in Medicare in the Senate health care bill. Or that, as Rhode Island's Jack Reed pointed out

historically, whenever the unemployment rate exceeded 7.4%, Congress has always extended benefits, and that such extensions generally create $2 in the economy for every $1 spent (you could say that they pay for themselves, which was Bunning’s entire objection). (Oregon Democratic Senator Jeff) Merkley noted the expense to state unemployment agencies to send out notices to shut down benefits, only to start them up again if they are extended.

The Democrats- or, rather, the Senate Democratic leadership, a distinction likely to go unnoticed among most Americans- is not blameless. According to Roll Call (subscription required) via David Waldman at

Bunning’s filibuster angered Democrats, most notably Durbin, who organized a group of the chamber’s younger Democrats Thursday night to man the floor for a potential all-night session.

But after three hours of often heated debate — during which Bunning could be heard yelling obscenities at other lawmakers — Durbin dropped his efforts for the evening shortly before midnight.

Or, as Waldman blogged, "so they had him to the point where he was shouting obscenities on the Senate floor and decided... to let him go home for a good night's sleep."

Democrats prefer to call Bunning out, labeling his actions "obstructionism," rather than risk confrontation with the GOP. They could hold a vote rather than hold out for unanimous consent but that would be.... so partisan. Meanwhile, the leader of the Senate Republicans, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky (who forced his home-state colleague out of running for re-election because he was a likely loser), stays at arms-length from the filibuster. Yet, Republicans are sending a powerful message to their base- we stand against the federal government, against runaway spending (which it hardly is), and against the evil troika of Obama, Reid, and Pelosi. (The House already had passed the same bill.) When most of the funds eventually are restored, they still can say: our intent was saintly; we did what we could. (Years after Bush 43, after promising "no new taxes" during the 1996 campaign, had raised taxes, some stalwart Republican voters still were defending him as obviously well-motivated in having made the vow.)

A two-fer? Maybe a three-fer. Democratic leaders, including Senate Majority Whip Steny Hoyer and House Majority Whip James Clyburn, are using this episode to strengthen claims of a need to reform what appears to be a dysfunctional Senate.

Except of course this is not how the Senate functioned until very recently. Now, the GOP is doing all it can to bring effective legislative activity to a halt. With help from the mainstream media (and the right), the public does not view this as partisan obstructionism but as the failure of government to get anything done. That government currently is run (theoretically) by Democrats- the party of government. And when November comes, it appears, those voters are going to be revved up to run that party out of that government. Then if filibusters are more difficult to sustain, the GOP can make a run at Medicare and Social Security, successfully weakening the social safety net.

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