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Days later, as a deal emerges, Bunning backs down

By Ben Pershing
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 3, 2010; A01

For five days, retiring Sen. Jim Bunning held his fellow Republicans hostage. He stood his ground, angry and alone, a one-man blockade against unemployment benefits, Medicare payments to doctors, satellite TV to rural Americans and paychecks to highway workers.

"Enough," the Kentucky Republican thundered repeatedly, his face red, as he stood in the way of Washington spending more money he said it didn't have on an extension of popular programs. Finally, as supporters and critics yelled at each other outside his Lexington office, he capitulated from the well of the Senate on Tuesday night.

Relentless attacks from Democrats and withering support from Republicans, worried that the Hall of Fame pitcher was turning the party's message of principled objection to raging obstructionism, ended Bunning's stand. He had forced about 2,000 federal employees into furloughs and imperiled jobless benefits for millions.

And he had forced some in his own caucus to distance themselves. Early next year, Bunning will conclude a Senate career studded with impolitic comments, and he appears long past taking any direction or advice from GOP leaders.

The resolution emerged after several hours of uneasy negotiations Tuesday, during which the staff of Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) dealt with the staff of Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), which dealt with Bunning's staff. Having demanded three amendment votes on the extensions bill, Bunning settled for one Tuesday and the promise of more later in the week.

Bunning's amendment, which failed with only 43 votes in support, called for the $10 billion package of temporary extensions to be offset with the end of a lucrative tax credit for paper companies on a wood byproduct called "black liquor."

After that vote, senators immediately approved the extensions bill, 78 to 19.

Even after the agreement, feelings remained raw on both sides.

"It came about because Republicans realized they were wrong," Reid said.

Bunning, 79, was similarly hostile, saying that he would be watching Democrats during the vote on his amendment Tuesday night "and checking off the hypocrites one by one." He remained defiant as he read a letter from a constituent who applauded the fight even though both his sons were unemployed.

The Republicans had tried sending the gentlewoman from Maine to the floor to try and coax Bunning down. "Senator Bunning's views do not represent a majority of the Republican caucus," said Sen. Susan Collins. "It's important that the American people understand that there is bipartisan support for extending these vital programs. This is not a partisan issue."

Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) publicly urged Bunning to end his stand, while McConnell, who has a long-standing feud with his fellow Kentuckian, ducked a question Tuesday on whether Bunning was "speaking for the Republicans."

But the newest Republican senator, Scott Brown of Massachusetts, said Bunning had done the right thing in holding up the measure. "I don't think it's about party, it's about good government," said Brown, who was elected in January vowing to promote fiscal discipline. "The perception in Massachusetts and other parts of the country is that Washington is broken. And if it takes one guy to get up and make a stand, to point out that we need a funding source to pay for everything that's being pushed here, I think that speaks for itself."

Democrats made a steady procession to the microphones Tuesday to lament the doleful effects of Bunning's action in their states. Drafting behind those comments, party aides went granular, blasting out a stream of damning numbers -- aid for the jobless cutoff, highway workers furloughed, bridge projects halted -- tailored to individual regions and congressional districts. The result: Bunning on the local news, Bunning in the hometown newspaper.

"If there were ever an emergency, this is it," Reid said. "It's not about the legislative process or Senate rules. It's about the rights of individuals to survive in America. . . . They've gone too far."

Bunning said Tuesday night that his efforts had been worthwhile in shedding a spotlight on growing federal deficits.

"Neither side has clean hands," Bunning said. "What matters is that we get our spending problems under control."

If consumers of political news didn't know much about Bunning before, they certainly do now. They've heard about his record of controversial comments, the push into retirement he got from McConnell and other Republicans, and the skipped December votes on health care and other issues he has steadfastly refused to explain.

Videos of Bunning brushing off reporters -- ABC News on Monday, CNN on Tuesday -- have gone viral. Coverage back home has been similarly rough; the Louisville Courier-Journal editorialized Tuesday that Bunning was "raging -- and cussing -- at the dying of the spotlight. If only he could exit stage right now."

Asked Tuesday about cutting a deal with Bunning, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said, "I don't know how you negotiate with the irrational."

Beyond this narrow debate, Bunning gave Democrats a chance to make broader arguments -- Republicans are obstructionists, and Senate rules are undemocratic -- that they hope will soften the ground in the health-care fight.

Scott Lilly, an expert on spending issues at the liberal Center for American Progress, said Bunning's move couldn't have come at a better time for Democrats.

"I think they were in desperate need of a poster child, and he just sort of stepped up to the line and offered himself up," Lilly said.

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