Wild pitches from Sen. Bunning

Sen. Jim Bunning is taking the whole "Party of No" thing pretty darn seriously.
Sen. Jim Bunning is taking the whole "Party of No" thing pretty darn seriously. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/associated Press)
By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, March 2, 2010

In his 17 years pitching in the big leagues, Jim Bunning was known for his graceful curveball, his rising slider and his sidearm fastball. Now 78 years old and about to retire from the Senate, the Republican of Kentucky is apparently down to only one pitch: the screwball.

For four days, he has been on a one-man campaign to cut off unemployment benefits, kick the unemployed off of health insurance, cut Medicare payments to doctors, deny satellite TV to rural Americans, shut down federal flood insurance and highway projects, and furlough thousands of federal workers.

Democrats can hardly believe the gift Bunning has given them by single-handedly shutting down these popular programs. Bunning's fellow Republicans are aghast. If this were baseball, the Hall of Famer would be on his way down to triple-A. But this is the Senate, where any one of the 100 members has the ability to bring proceedings to a halt, and Bunning continues to hurl his wild pitches.

The leadoff hitter Bunning faced on Monday was ABC News producer Z. Byron Wolf. Wolf, intercepting Bunning as he left his office, asked the senator to stay and talk to the cameras. Bunning, according to Wolf, flashed him the middle finger.

Next batter: ABC's Jonathan Karl, who caught Bunning at the elevator, with the camera rolling. "Excuse me! This is a senators-only elevator!" Bunning shouted.

On deck was Harry Reid, the Senate Democratic leader, who asked for the 10th time for the Senate to approve, by unanimous consent, a temporary measure that would avoid the furloughs and the cutoff of unemployment benefits and highway funds.

"I object!" Bunning called out from the rear of the chamber, raising his right hand.

Reid was almost gleeful. "The fact is my friends on the other side of the aisle are opposing extending unemployment benefits for people who are out of work," he said.

The ornery Kentuckian said he was merely insisting that Congress find a way to pay for the $10 billion, 30-day extension, but that was difficult to square with his recent votes against attempts to rein in debt and spending.

This left people puzzling over Bunning's motives. Was he taking revenge on his senior colleague from Kentucky, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who helped to push Bunning into retirement? Or was he just being, well, crazy? This second possibility cannot be dismissed out of hand. With the Phillies and the Tigers, he had enviable accuracy, boasting one of the best strikeout-to-walk ratios. But since his reelection campaign, in 2004, Bunning has had some serious control problems.

He said his opponent looked like one of Saddam Hussein's sons. He suggested that he and his wife had been roughed up by "little green doctors" at a political picnic. He refused to debate in person, instead doing so by teleconference from Republican National Committee offices in Washington, where he used a teleprompter.

Just over a year ago, Bunning resumed his erratic form when he predicted in public that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg would probably be dead from pancreatic cancer within nine months.

Yet, with the possible exception of that perfect game in '64, the events of the past week have been Bunning's most visible.

Reid opened Monday's Senate session with the same business that had been on the floor for Thursday's and Friday's sessions: trying to get Bunning to release his objection. Bunning, his face red, stared angrily at Reid. Bunning claimed the standoff was Reid's fault, for removing the provisions from an earlier piece of legislation. Pointing at Reid, Bunning blurted out: "He did it!"

True, there were many ways in which Democrats could have passed the extension earlier. But then they would have missed the satisfaction of fighting with Bunning. As Republicans went to the Senate floor to try to change the subject, Democrats held a teleconference with reporters. "This is a part of the wake-up call to the American people that Republicans are abusing procedures in the Senate and it is costing the American people," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), head of the House Democrats' 2010 campaign.

On the Senate floor, Democrats lined up for the chance to denounce Bunning for his "outrageous" affront to the unemployed. Two hours after Reid forced Bunning to make his 10th objection, the deputy Democratic leader, Dick Durbin (Ill.) went after Bunning for an 11th time. For 20 minutes, Durbin, looking up at the visitors in the gallery, spoke of all the programs Bunning had temporarily killed. "I don't get it," he said. "I feel we ought to be standing behind the people in our nation who are struggling to find a job," he said.

Listening to Durbin, Bunning grinned, laughed and muttered to himself. At one point he extended his right hand -- his pitching hand! -- to the floor, shook his fingers and clenched them into a fist. But instead of slugging Durbin, he merely raised an objection, his 11th, and promised to do it again and again. "As many people that get up and propose that," he said, "I will be here, whenever it is."

That's right where the opposing team wants him.

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