GOP Sending Mixed Signals on Bunning Blockade

Posted March 2, 2010 at 12:21pm

Senate Republicans appear to be increasingly divided over Sen. Jim Bunning’s (R-Ky.) one-man filibuster of unemployment benefits, with some distancing themselves from his crusade and others rushing to his defense.

For instance, while Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) tried to get Bunning to abandon the effort — with the blessing of Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) dismissed the issue as unimportant and defended his cantankerous colleague.

“This is not as big of a deal as some of you are trying to make it,” Hatch told reporters Tuesday, adding that Bunning’s demand that a $10 billion short-term extension of unemployment benefits, highway spending and other programs be paid for is “a pretty important principle. … We’ve been living too much and for too many years on borrowed money.”

“Honestly I think Sen. Bunning is making a valid point. … I love his personality. He’s a gutsy guy who fights for what he believes in,” Hatch continued, adding that “he shouldn’t be condemned for that.”

Just hours earlier, however, Collins took to the floor Tuesday morning to ask that the Senate vote on the issue so that thousands of furloughed federal highway workers could go back to work and the unemployed could see a resumption of their jobless benefits. Bunning’s filibuster, which he kicked off Thursday, caused those provisions to expire Sunday night.

Bunning objected to Collins’ request.

Collins said she was proffering the request on behalf of herself and “numerous” other GOP Senators with whom she had spoken.

“There are 500 Mainers whose benefits expired on Sunday. The COBRA health insurance benefits subsidies for the unemployed, important flood insurance, highway funding, small-business loans” expired, Collins said on the floor. “If we don’t act, physicians all across this country are going to have a 21 percent cut in their Medicare reimbursements. 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.”

Meanwhile, National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) has been backing away from his earlier defense of Bunning, saying Tuesday that Bunning isn’t acting on behalf of the GOP Conference.

“Most Members of our caucus would like to have a temporary extension,” Cornyn told reporters. “This is one Senator; this doesn’t represent the position of the caucus.”

Bunning, known for having a prickly personality, took shot at his own party and McConnell on Tuesday morning as he read a letter from a constituent who praised his stand against the bill. McConnell and Bunning have a frosty relationship — it hit a low point last year as Bunning was deliberating over whether to seek another Senate term.

“It’s too bad Sen. Mitch McConnell and some of the elected officials on your side of the aisle do not have the backbone or your sense of decency when it comes to keeping their promises to the American people,” Bunning quoted his constituent from Louisville as writing.

A senior Democratic leadership aide said GOP floor staff approached their Democratic counterparts Tuesday morning to try to broker a deal to end the impasse. However, it remains unclear whether Bunning will agree to any deal — he has already scuttled two agreements reached by McConnell and Reid to pass the bill.

David Drucker contributed to this report.