Bunning’s high, hard pitch stirs Democrats’ anger
“We have to call them out,” rivals say after the Republican’s filibuster over jobless benefits.
While the legislative toll has been high, the partisan conflict in the Senate has been waged in a genteel, decorous manner. Now things are threatening to get ugly.
Senators routinely initiate filibusters, lodge objections to votes and impose “holds” on White House nominees and then go about their business as they await make-or-break procedural votes.
The last straw seems to have come in the form of Sen. Jim Bunning’s decision last week to launch an oldfashioned, one-man filibuster to block jobless Americans from an extension of unemployment benefits because of his concerns over the federal budget deficit.
A group of Democrats took to the floor in a late-night session on Thursday to hold the Kentucky Republican’s feet to the political fire.
They castigated Bunning, forced him to repeatedly affirm his objection and reminded him of bleak unemployment numbers in his home state. Bunning, a gruff 78-year-old baseball Hall of Famer, was aggravated to the point where he was overheard swearing on the Senate floor and complaining he had been ambushed.
He did not budge on his objection, but Democrats said that staying late was well worth the effort since they were able to put a face — Bunning’s — on what they called a case of Republican obstruction and show in a more graphic manner how business was being conducted, or not, in the Senate.
“We can’t let people stay in the shadows if they are going to do these things,” said Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Senate Democrat, who led the impromptu floor skirmish. “We have to call them out.”
Democrats have been under pressure from their allies to be more aggressive in challenging Republican procedural tactics and produce the 60 votes needed to move ahead on most subjects.
The situation with Bunning has yet to be resolved. The Senate is expected to consider a longer-term extension of the programs Monday, with passage likely this week.
The showdown already has gotten plenty of attention. As they mixed it up on the Senate floor, Democrats said they found the airing of their grievances with Bunning cathartic and beneficial to the Senate.
“When Senator Bunning decided to do this, it came with a risk,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat. “And the risk was that there were going to be senators who were going to speak out about it.” McCaskill said that both parties had been at fault in the Senate, “but that it is time we try to make this place work better.”
“I think the Senate would be a healthier place if we did it more often,” she said.
Stepping up their confrontations with Republicans carries risks. In Bunning’s case, he was acting virtually alone and did not have the manpower or the expertise of the leadership ap- paratus to back him up or provide guidance in responding to the Democrats.
Republicans said that if Democrats wanted to make such faceoffs a regular event, they would force Democrats into politically embarrassing situations by proposing votes on issues Democrats wanted to avoid, such as terrorism trials in the U.S.
At the same time, these types of guerrilla tactics could fur- ther polarize the Senate just when there has been a glimmer of bipartisanship, like on the recently passed plan to spur job creation. The Chicago Tribune contributed to this report.