Unemployment battle sheds light on McConnell as leader

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in recent weeks has rallied his GOP colleagues to support Sen. Tom Coburn’s (R-Okla.) effort to go toe to toe with Democrats on the politically charged battle over unemployment benefits.

 But two months ago, McConnell was mostly silent as his Kentucky colleague, Sen. Jim Bunning (R), waged a similar battle.

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There is more than one reason for the disparity, but a leading one is that Coburn gave McConnell a heads-up on his plan and Bunning did not.

“You never want to blindside Mitch,” said one senior Republican.

McConnell’s management of the two senators’ taking on the White House and Democratic leaders comes as he is marshaling Senate Republicans to focus on the nation’s fiscal future. After years of agreeing to so-called “emergency spending” that isn’t paid for, such as unemployment benefits, GOP senators are now threatening to block any such spending that adds to the deficit.

The upper chamber is debating whether to allow a short-term extension of unemployment benefits for about another month, along with health insurance subsidies and a national flood insurance program. A longer-term extension until the end of the year has been approved by both the House and Senate, but is stalled in conference negotiations to reconcile the two versions.

The GOP’s position has been a gradual evolution since the start of the Obama administration, but it has solidified in the two months since Bunning took his stand. McConnell has presided over the shift by alternately supporting some senators and staying back to watch others. As the left skewered Bunning in February, for instance, McConnell did not have his Kentucky colleague’s back.

The GOP leader wasn’t entirely surprised by Bunning’s actions, since senators routinely use a private process called “hotlining” to alert each other if they have any objections to pending legislation. But there was no strategizing between the two men, as was the case with Coburn.

“I told [McConnell] what I was going to do, and advised him that I planned on objecting, that it’s the right issue for the country and we ought to be about paying for the things we do,” Coburn said.

McConnell backed Coburn, taking up the cause by publicly criticizing Democratic spending habits in a floor speech Monday, offering far more visible support than he had extended to Bunning.

Bunning, who would not comment for this article, also likely lost support due to his frosty relationship with McConnell. Bunning has openly criticized the Senate GOP leader, calling him “a control freak” on a conference call with Kentucky reporters last year. Also, McConnell was instrumental in pushing Bunning to retire, opting not to endorse him before the irascible GOP senator announced he would not seek reelection.

One senior GOP aide said Republicans are still unlikely to attract enough votes to support Coburn’s call for blocking all unfunded spending, noting Monday’s vote in which four Republicans crossed the aisle to support Democrats on a procedural motion to the benefits extension.

But the aide said senators do consider Coburn’s tactics smarter than Bunning’s.

“It’s hard for the Democrats to demagogue Coburn because he doesn’t say no just for the sake of no,” the aide said. “He doesn’t ask for anything unreasonable. A lot of times he just wants an hour of time to speak on the floor. He just does it differently than Bunning.”

Known as a difficult personality, Bunning backed down in February in return for votes on amendments to fund the benefits, which were all defeated. In the face of growing media coverage, few GOP senators stood by Bunning at the time, aside from Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.).

This month, following McConnell’s lead, some Republicans are saying they will even embrace Coburn’s more expansive call to block any future bill that isn’t funded.

 “It was a new issue when Sen. Bunning raised it, but it elevated the issue and it really got a lot of us thinking about what we ought to be doing in terms of paying for these things,” said GOP Policy Chairman John Thune (S.D.). “So the next time it came around, it was a lot easier. You have to give Bunning credit for blazing the trail and teeing it up. Coburn and others now have taken it up as a great issue for us to rally around.”

Likewise, Coburn credited Bunning for the fact that his opposition has gotten more traction than the Kentucky senator’s fight.

“I’m doing the same thing he did, and I probably couldn’t do it had he not done it first,” Coburn said. “He raised the issue, and it caught on, and that’s what I’ve been trying to do for five and a half years on spending. It’s not just unemployment. I’m going to object to anything that isn’t paid for.”
Democrats counter that Coburn has previously voted for bills that weren’t offset.

Some senior Republicans cited last month’s passage of healthcare reform as the principal reason why Coburn has received more support than Bunning.

The $940 billion bill passed the House in the weeks since Bunning attracted headlines, and the Senate subsequently passed a companion measure.

“When Sen. Bunning made his stand, healthcare was the issue, and now the spolight has shifted to the looming debt crisis,” said Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.). “That’s the difference between then and now.”