Dems United, Republicans Split, By Bunning Benefits Blockade

Sen. Jim Bunning (R-KY) has caused no shortage of problems for unemployed Americans, federal workers, and Medicare doctors. The list goes on and on. But he’s also put the Republican party in a tricky position–upsetting members of his own caucus who want the benefits restored, but who haven’t been able to rein him in–and he’s unified Democrats, who are using his filibuster to put a human face on the victims of Republican obstruction.

Republican leadership doesn’t have a great deal of leverage over Bunning, who is retiring at the end of the year. But they also don’t particularly oppose what he’s doing. Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AZ) has risen to Bunning’s defense, as has NRSC chairman John Cornyn (R-TX), whose job it is to get Republicans elected to the Senate.But within the Republican caucus, members as liberal as Susan Collins (R-ME) and as conservative as James Inhofe (R-OK) have publicly criticized the Bunning blockade. Collins even pleaded with her colleague to end his filibuster on the floor this morning, to no avail.

One Republican strategist says the division extends outside the Senate, into the conservative movement, where activists are rallying to Bunning’s side while consultants–people paid to get Republicans elected–are advising their candidates to dissociate themselves from the Kentucky senator if and when the issue comes up.

“I know activists who like this,” the strategist said. “Consultants have told their candidates that if this comes up, be against Bunning.”

And, indeed, you can find an outpouring of support for Bunning on any number of high-profile conservative websites.

Democrats, for the most part, are charging hard at Bunning, and pinning this on the Republican leadership as well.

Noting that a number of Republicans have risen to Bunning’s defense, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) told reporters at a press conference today that “the Republican party and the Republican leadership have set the tone for a year of ‘let’s find as many possible ways to obstruct as we can.'”

They say Republicans hope that the fallout from the Bunning filibuster–disappearing benefits, diminishing doctors fees–will be pinned on Democrats, who are supposed to be running the show. “Any victory for Obama is something the Republicans take personally as a defeat for them,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) told reporters today.

At the same time, in a sign that they’re playing hardball, they find themselves confronted by a simple irony. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid could force an end to debate on this temporary unemployment package, and bring it to a vote–a process that would take several days. Reid isn’t doing that. Instead, he’s pushing Bunning to end his filibuster, while pressing ahead with a separate bill that would extend these benefits for a full year. But in the meantime, people are being cut from the roles, and losing their COBRA subsidies and some wonder whether the Democrats should say “enough’s enough,” and take the time-consuming steps needed to end the filibuster.

Soon, perhaps. But not yet.

“I think that the Majority Leader is wise not to immediately collapse to a strategy of giving up all that cloture time, when there is at this point, there is a single person in the front of the Republican objection, to try to work his way through it and try to make sure that there’s a price for it, rather than just letting them just burn the time of the nation and the Senate,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) told reporters today.

Likewise, in response to a question from TPMDC, Brown acknowledged that this can’t be allowed to go on much longer. “We urge Senator Reid to move on it as legislation if it drags on much longer,” Brown said. “But then the Republican leaders got their way.”