Bunning’s gift to Dems

Perhaps it was a powerful quake that shook the earth from its axis, causing a Republican to turn an objection into a filibuster and an apocalyptic event in the U.S. Senate, but for diminished Democrats, Sen. Jim Bunning’s (R-Ky.) temper tantrum was nothing short of divine intervention.

With a hot-pink face and much grumbling, Bunning put a theatrical end to his one-man showdown in the Senate on Tuesday only after his hold on a 30-day extension of unemployment assistance caused the disruption of jobless benefits and healthcare coverage for millions of Americans and furloughs for 2,000 federal workers. Democrats feigned relief, after secretly hoping the filibuster would last through at least another round of Sunday talk shows.

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There was bipartisan agreement that Bunning, whose mental stability has been questioned as far back as 2004, chose a strange bill to blow up over, since extending unemployment benefits is perhaps the only thing left the two parties agree on. Though Republicans paid lip service to Bunning’s objections — the benefits measures aren’t paid for — they still sought distance from his angry confrontation.

“Sen. Bunning’s views do not represent a majority of the Republican caucus,” implored Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine). Even Sen. Inhofe (Okla.), a fellow member of the Three Jims (GOP Sens. Inhofe, Bunning and DeMint, of South Carolina) publicly called on Bunning to pack it in. On top of the filibuster itself there was Bunning’s embarrassing display, barking at colleagues and the media and using profanity, that was certainly better suited to the House of Representatives than the upper chamber.

Bunning’s blowup was indeed a gift to bewildered Democrats on more than one level. It portrayed Republicans as obstructionists, showed Republicans dissing the unemployed, gave the GOP the face of a mean old white guy that made even former Vice President Dick Cheney seem warm and fuzzy, illustrated how hamstrung Democrats are in trying to pass legislation within the confines of Senate rules, made fellow home-state senator and former friend Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) squirm and distracted from the plans Democrats have to pass healthcare reform with the reconciliation procedure, as well as from Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) stepping down as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee amid ethical troubles. Let’s call that a six-fer.

But reality must ultimately be tempering the Democrats’ glee — they know Bunning had a good point and touched a chord — as voters in both parties have grown increasingly anxious about our looming fiscal crisis. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) explained that the unemployment extension is one of the emergencies the government covers without providing offsets.

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The question of how many offsets the government can put off will return, as will the need to extend unemployment benefits. Democrats were lucky it was Bunning who chose to shut down the Senate. Next time, it may not be some poorly behaved grump, but instead someone soft-spoken and well-respected like Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), the obstetrician and friend of President Barack Obama’s who impressed Americans watching the healthcare reform summit last week with his substantive knowledge and common-sense approach. Democrats aren’t craving a televised showdown like that anytime soon.

But don’t count out Bunning. The Baseball Hall-of-Famer is retiring this year after being not-so-gently nudged out the door by his own party, and there’s plenty of time for more last stands before December. After backing off Tuesday, Bunning growled about Democrats, “I will be watching them closely and checking off the hypocrites one by one.”

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.

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