Days later, as a deal emerges, Bunning backs down

By Ben Pershing
Wednesday, March 3, 2010; 1:49 AM

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.

"I'm grateful to the members of the Senate on both sides of the aisle who worked to end this roadblock to relief for America's working families," President Obama said in a statement upon signing the measure into law late Tuesday.

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."

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