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.
[IMGCAP(1)]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 Washington's gridlock.
Bunning's 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: Bunning's 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 he's done more in the last few days to draw public attention to Republican procedural abuses in the Senate than anything we've 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 Bunning's 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 Bunning's 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.
"This is a part of the wake-up call to the American people that Republicans are abusing procedures in the Senate, and it is — it is costing the American people in terms of the important Medicare access, as well as other health care access and employment compensation that they otherwise would be receiving," Van Hollen said, previewing an argument Democrats are expected to make more frequently as the effects of the filibuster become more pronounced.
It remains unclear how Republicans plan to counter. Although Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) appeared Monday to take up Bunning's cause in a floor debate with Durbin and Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), GOP Senators have done little else to join in on the fight.
Part of the problem for Republicans is the messenger — Bunning is known for his prickly personality and has a frosty relationship with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Several GOP leadership aides noted that while Bunning may have a valid complaint that the measure be paid for, they disagree with his decision to put popular benefits at risk.
Of course, Republicans could try to pin the issue on Reid, who, after all, decided to put a Nevada-friendly travel promotion bill ahead of the benefits extension package on the Senate calendar. And while that bill may be a top priority for the casino and hotel industries in the Majority Leader's home state, Republicans can and likely will make the argument that Reid should have moved the benefits package first. But that would require Republicans to explain why Reid is at fault. And as any good message professional will tell you, if you're explaining, you're already losing the public relations war.