By Alexander Bolton - 03/27/10 06:07 PM EDT
Senate Republicans have rallied around Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) after treating him as a pariah for much of the past two years.
Bunning is retiring at the end of this year because of lack of party support for his re-election but he has won approval from colleagues in recent days.
“It took an act of courage like Sen. Bunning’s to perhaps jolt people into awareness of just how bad it's really gotten,” said Senate Republican Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), in reference to the tougher stance GOP lawmakers are taking on fiscal issues.
This week, Senate Republicans led by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) blocked a package of expiring provisions, including unemployment insurance, COBRA health subsidies, and a temporary freeze in scheduled cuts to doctors’ Medicare payments, because the cost of the legislation was not offset and would add to the debt.
When Bunning filibustered a similar package last month for the same reason, Republicans kept their distance.
A few lawmakers, such as Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), went to the floor to offer encouraging words of support but GOP leadership aides described Bunning’s protest as a one-man crusade.
Kyl acknowledged on Friday that GOP senators did not do enough to rally around Bunning in February, when Democrats and media organizations portrayed him as an angry and erratic troublemaker.
Bunning eventually backed down and Congress approved a short-term extension of the provisions, which are due to expire on April 5.
Kyl said GOP lawmakers later decided they made a mistake by shunning Bunning and would support Coburn in his filibuster.
“After we reflected on the fact that we didn’t give him as much help as we probably should have, that we wanted to do it in a concerted way [and] to be successful this time,” Kyl said Friday. “And when Sen. Coburn stepped forward to provide that leadership a lot of us felt this was the time to do it.”
Democrats proclaimed the standoff with Bunning a political victory, and several news organizations portrayed it as such, giving the Democrats at least a media win.
But Republican strategists concluded the episode was a win for them because it drew a sharp contrast between the parties on fiscal issues. Republicans believe it showed to voters they are willing to take a hard stand, even if it costs laid-off workers, to keep the deficit from growing.
“I think Republicans were too concerned about the risk,” said Brian Darling, director of Senate relations for the Heritage Foundation. “The issue of unemployment benefits is risky because there is the other side of people losing their benefits for a while.
“Bunning stood up and showed leadership and other members of the caucus didn’t show the same,” Darling added. “I’m happy that Republicans finally have his back, for a period of time he was out there alone.”
GOP strategists believe that growing national concern over the nation’s fiscal health will be a driving issue in the midterm election.
“The Bunning standoff was a win for us because it showed that we’re serious about the debt while the Democrats are not,” said a GOP aide.
Independent political analysts say the federal deficit, which the Congressional Budget Office projects to reach between $1.35 trillion and $1.5 trillion in 2010, could be a major political liability for Democrats.
Democrats are feeling a wind at their backs after passage of healthcare reform, but analysts such as Bruce Cain, director of the University of California’s Washington Center, said the midterm election would hinge on job growth and public perception of the deficit.
Republicans will attempt to characterize healthcare reform as emblematic of the growth of federal government at a time of trillion-dollar deficits and economic recession.
Democrats will emphasize the expansion of healthcare coverage to 32 million uninsured people and benefits that will kick in this year, such as allowing children to stay on their parents’ plans until age 26.
A month ago, some Republicans saw Bunning’s filibuster as an unwelcome distraction at a time when they thought they were winning the public relations war on healthcare reform.
Now that Democrats have passed healthcare reform and believe they have rendered moot GOP threats about an impending government takeover, the debate over the nation’s fiscal health has become more important.
“People are worried that we’re bankrupting the country and mortgaging our children’s future,” said Republican pollster Whit Ayres.
Indeed, Republicans have already begun to focus on the debt burden of people 25 years old and younger as a potent political weapon.
“There is not anybody in this body, Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative, who does not want a great future for our kids,” Coburn said on the Senate floor, where he displayed a poster of a young girl wearing a placard stating her share of the national debt.
“At the end of this year, September 30 of this year, every man, woman and little girl and little boy will be responsible for $45,000,” Coburn said. “It is going to grow $6,000 per man, woman, and child this year alone.”