Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and the White House may want to send a few dozen roses to Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) for throwing them a lifeline last week.
By blocking a short-term extension of unemployment and health insurance benefits, highway funding and Medicare payments to doctors, Bunning has unwittingly given Democrats measurable evidence that the much-maligned Republican filibuster is the real reason for Washingtons gridlock.
Bunnings unforced error could not have come at a worse time for Republicans, who are ramping up an aggressive campaign to tar as an abuse of power the Democrats expected use of reconciliation to pass health care reform.
House and Senate Democrats have bitterly complained about GOP obstruction for the better part of a year, but those arguments have done little to change public perception that they are running a do-nothing Congress. Polling data has also consistently indicated that the public views the use of filibuster-busting reconciliation rules to pass sweeping health care reform as inappropriate.
But Democrats seem to have caught some wind at their backs: Bunnings filibuster has the unpopular side effects of imperiling benefits to tens of thousands of unemployed workers and forcing furloughs on a couple thousand Department of Transportation workers.
We now have exhibit A in Republican filibuster abuse from Sen. Bunning. I think hes done more in the last few days to draw public attention to Republican procedural abuses in the Senate than anything weve seen before, Assistant to the Speaker Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said Monday.
Van Hollen quickly sought to broaden his attacks. It does, of course, come on the heels of Sen. [Richard] Shelby [R-Ala.] using the same kind of tactics to try and hold up all sorts of Obama administration nominees until he got a few things for his state, another example of abuse.
Bunning kicked off his filibuster late last week, arguing that the benefits extension must be paid for and forcing a Thursday night standoff with Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). Little did Democrats know then that Bunnings one-man crusade could give Van Hollen, Reid and other Democrats the opening they have desperately been looking for to turn the tables on Republicans, who have charged the Democrats with being an ineffective and out-of-touch majority.
In fact, Democratic operatives in the Senate were all smiles when discussing the implications of Bunnings filibuster. Over the next several days, aides said, Democrats hope to recast themselves as the friend of average Americans while charging that Republicans are standing in the way of delivering much-needed aid to the poor and jobless.
More broadly, Democrats will look to justify the use of tactics such as reconciliation to get legislation passed namely, health care reform.