POLITICS

Jim Bunning, Once A Pariah, Now A GOP Standard Bearer

Kentucky Republican Sen. Jim Bunning made himself a pariah when he singlehandedly blocked a reauthorization of unemployment benefits back in February, saying "tough shit" to a Democratic senator's request to help the long-term jobless and complaining that having to stiff the unemployed was causing him to miss a basketball game. The press lambasted Bunning and members of his own party begged him to back off as he jeopardized benefits for thousands of people.

Since then, almost the entire Republican party has taken up the retiring senator's argument that deficit reduction is more important than jobless aid, and extended benefits have been in limbo since the beginning of June, affecting 2.1 million people. The press has shed some its previous sympathy for the unemployed and now wonders, as many members of Congress do, if the extended benefits don't actually make them lazy.

For the GOP and Nebraska Democrat Ben Nelson, it turns out, Jim Bunning wasn't a pariah after all -- he was a fiscal visionary.

A cheerful Bunning declined to gloat when speaking to reporters off the Senate floor this week. He said the press attention never bothered him.

"I don't really care about that. I didn't then and I don't now," said Bunning, who at least cared enough at the time to give an ABC News producer the middle finger as he boarded an elevator in the Senate. "I don't feel like 'I told you so' because I've been saying it for a long time. I've been on the budget committee 12 years and seen it go from positive to negative."

Republicans grew bolder after Bunning caused extended benefits to lapse, and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) led another filibuster of unemployment benefits in April that caused a second brief lapse. The outcry from advocates of the unemployed, apparently, emboldened the Republicans even more. The current lapse has been ongoing for 43 days.

"Immediately [after my own filibuster], Coburn got up, and took a position on a larger sum and that brought some more people to my way of thinking, and then all of a sudden we start seeing in our conference the debt is one of the top three issues in every poll that is taken," Bunning said. "So guess what? Politically, it was the smart thing to do. I'm not accusing anybody of being a political mind out on the floor."

Coburn has since said that he would have joined Bunning in his first filibuster had he not been ill at the time.

Bunning and other Republicans are also unanimous in their belief that deficit discipline should not apply to the expiring Bush tax cuts for the wealthy. Bunning said not reauthorizing the tax cuts would have the same consequence that Democrats attribute to not reauthorizing jobless aid: a double-dip recession.

"By not extending the tax cuts, you put the economy in jeopardy of a double dip," Bunning said. "The worst thing you can do when you're in a recession is add taxes to it. And when you take away tax cuts, it's like adding tax to the economy."