TOPICS > Politics

Bunning Plays Hardball Over Jobless Benefits Bill

March 2, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Kentucky Sen. Jim Bunning managed to single-handledly delay an extension of jobless benefits, ever as some of his Republican colleagues spoke out in opposition. Gwen Ifill talks to a Louisville Courier-Journal reporter for insight on the story.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Next: The senator from Kentucky plays hardball with his colleagues.

Gwen Ifill reports.

GWEN IFILL: Over 48 stalemated hours in Washington, 400,000 unemployed Americans saw their jobless benefits run out; doctors caring for Medicare patients saw their federal reimbursement drop by 21 percent; 2,000 federal employees were forced into unpaid furloughs; and work was halted on 41 highway construction projects across the country, all the result of one senator’s determination to block passage of a short-term funding bill that he says would run up the nation’s debt.

SEN. JIM BUNNING, R-Ky.: I object.

GWEN IFILL: Republican Jim Bunning of Kentucky said he wants the $10 billion cost of the bill to be paid for by cutting other programs.

SEN. JIM BUNNING: We want a country that don’t owe everybody in the world for our existence. I don’t — and the question I have been asked mostly is, why now? Well, why not now?

GWEN IFILL: Bunning, a former Hall of Fame pitcher who is retiring from the Senate this year, has earned a colorful reputation during 11 years in the Senate.

SEN. JIM BUNNING: Excuse me. This is a senator-only elevator.

GWEN IFILL: But his latest effort has rankled Republicans and Democrats alike.

SEN. PATTY MURRAY, D-Wash.: Today, we have a clear-cut example to show the American people just what’s wrong with Washington, D.C. And that is because, today, one single Republican senator is standing in the way of the unemployment benefits of 400,000 Americans.

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS, R-Maine: Madam President, I hope that we can act together for the American people. And, again, I want to emphasize that this issue is so important to senators on both sides of the aisle.

GWEN IFILL: Today’s debate turned personal, as Bunning squared off against his fellow Republicans and against the Democratic leadership.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid insisted Bunning was punishing the jobless.

SEN. HARRY REID, D-Nev., majority leader: He’s lecturing the country on deficits. He wasn’t too worried about this during the eight years of the Bush administration, when two wars were unpaid for.

GWEN IFILL: Bunning insisted the cost of passing the bill is too high.

SEN. JIM BUNNING: I have the same right as any other senator here on the floor. And it’s not a filibuster when you object. And that ought to be brought out clearly. A filibuster is when you stand on this floor and you talk and talk and talk. I have not done that.

GWEN IFILL: Negotiations to break the deadlock continued this afternoon behind closed doors.

Now for more on the Senate standoff, we’re joined by James Carroll, who reports on Washington for The Louisville Courier-Journal.

Mr. Carroll, James, tell me, why is it that — when is it that a jobless extension bill is not a slam-dunk?

JAMES CARROLL, The Louisville Courier-Journal: Well, I think most people thought last, what, Thursday, it was a slam-dunk. That’s why they brought it up under a procedure called unanimous consent, just as it implies. Basically, noncontroversial measures go on the calendar. Everybody agrees to it, and on we go.

And at the time this was brought up last Thursday, it was on the unanimous consent calendar. It came up, and Bunning objected. Boom. All of a sudden, everything stopped. So, everybody did think pretty much it was a slam-dunk, except for — except for Jim Bunning.

And now everybody is talking, and it’s the only business in town right now.

GWEN IFILL: Do his numbers add up, when he says that, in fact, the government should pay for the things it wants to finance?

JAMES CARROLL: Well, this is the ongoing debate in Washington, of course.

And, you know, you’re looking at one of the things they talk about a lot is this new law that Obama just signed last month called the — it’s — the short version of it is pay-go, pay-as-you-go law. And the idea is that, for any spending the federal government does, it’s supposed to offset it, either with spending cuts somewhere else or tax increases — perish the thought.

But the big problem, of course, with the law, as many critics have pointed out, is that there are so many loopholes in it. For instance, some of the major entitlement programs are exempt, Medicare, Social Security. A lot of the direct spending in the annual appropriations bills are also exempt. And, by the way, so are emergency spending bills, like this unemployment benefits bill.

GWEN IFILL: So, remind viewers, how is it that one senator can stop all of this, can bring the Senate to a halt?

JAMES CARROLL: Well, it’s the Senate rules. And, you know, the rules in the Senate are different from the rules in the House.

I think, you know, some senators who are big fans of the institution — and I guess most are, or they become fans — you know, they quote the founders as talking about the Senate as the saucer that cools the tea, you know, when you pour the tea into the saucer if it’s too hot.

Other people see it as just a place where — some other senators joke, it’s where legislation goes to die.

GWEN IFILL: Well…

JAMES CARROLL: So, you know, and the problem, of course, is, it feeds into this perception of Washington as a place where nothing gets done.

GWEN IFILL: Well, why don’t Democrats just go ahead and force a vote? That’s all it really takes to break a filibuster. If they think that most people are — two-thirds of the Senate support this idea of extending jobless benefits and all of these really good things, why not just vote on it?

JAMES CARROLL: And I would venture it’s even more than two-thirds.

They could do that. To break Bunning’s objection, you basically have to go through some of the same procedural maneuvers you would have to go through to break a filibuster, which could take from — if we started right now, it could take into next week. And so they were hoping for a way that perhaps they could break it some other way, basically coming up with some kind of a deal, where Bunning could have a vote, one single vote on an amendment that would probably fail, and then go ahead to the main piece of legislation, pass it, and we would be done with it, and on to other things.

But, right now, there’s no deal.

GWEN IFILL: Tell us about Jim Bunning. You have covered him for a while. He — he seems to be — I think irascible is the kindest word even his colleagues would use.

JAMES CARROLL: He — he’s his own man, I think you would definitely say.

I think, if you Google words like cantankerous and ornery, you get thousands of hits. And he’s always been this way. People wonder, you know, what’s up with Jim Bunning? He’s always been this way.

I think, though, you have to overlay this situation a little bit with the political situation he finds himself in. He is not running for reelection this year. And he has a bone to pick with the leader of the Senate Republicans, his fellow Kentuckian, Mitch McConnell.

And he believes that Mitch McConnell basically closed off all the avenues to him for running for reelection and forced him out of the race, because Bunning — thought that the seat couldn’t be held by Bunning. Bunning has already had two pretty tough races.

So, there — that’s sort of the underlying conflict sort of behind the scenes. It’s very interesting today, when a lot of this debate came up in the Senate, and everybody is talking about Bunning’s objection, and both sides are talking about that, McConnell got up at one point during the morning session and gave a speech on health care, not even acknowledging that any of this was going on around him just feet away.

GWEN IFILL: Does mean that Jim Bunning is basically standing alone on this — on this idea on stopping this bill?

JAMES CARROLL: If not alone, pretty close to alone. Jim DeMint came on, another Republican, came on this afternoon and — and praised him for his courageous stand.

But the fact of the matter is, when you’re dealing with unemployment benefits, there’s a lot of anxiety out there. The phones are ringing off the hook. I can tell you from experience — I have been in Washington a long time — my phone at The Louisville Courier-Journal’s Washington bureau has been ringing off the hook on this issue.

People are calling me because they can’t reach other people, and they see my stories on the Web. So, this is an issue that is cutting through both parties. It’s — it’s very intense. I think the Republicans, as well as the Democrats, want to see this over as fast as possible and resolved.

GWEN IFILL: So — well, are the Democrats, however, treating this as maybe a — I don’t know — a gift?

JAMES CARROLL: Well, it’s been an unexpected issue served to them on a platter. It kind of came out of nowhere really. And they have made a lot of it, as you might expect.

They see this as — they have sort of painted the entire GOP with a broad brush here. They see Bunning as sort of the symbol of Republican obstructionism in Congress. And, of course, they’re running with that ball.

But they also realize they’re getting a lot of phone calls, too. And this has got to get resolved pretty quickly.

GWEN IFILL: Well, speaking of resolution, briefly, is there one in the works? We hear about closed door meetings all day.

JAMES CARROLL: There’s — well, that’s sort of the currency in D.C., isn’t it, as you know?

There are a lot of closed-door meetings. One of the scenarios I have heard is — I have heard a couple of conflicting ones. One is that Bunning will be given an opportunity to have a vote on his proposal to pay for this program with money out of the stimulus package. And then he will probably lose. And then they would go to the other piece of legislation, pass it, and they could move on.

There’s other scenarios where Bunning might be forced to talk all night and other — you know, it could be a real nightmare. So, we don’t — we won’t go there until we hear more, I guess.

GWEN IFILL: Well, since you’re — it will be a nightmare for you, since you’re the one covering it.

GWEN IFILL: James Carroll of The Louisville Courier-Journal, thanks a lot for helping us out.

JAMES CARROLL: My pleasure.