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Bunning Ties GOP in Knots

Sen. Jim Bunning’s (R-Ky.) five-day blockade of an extension of unemployment insurance and health benefits did more than bring the Senate to a virtual standstill. It tied Republicans in knots: Some defended him, some criticized him and still others — like Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) — just wanted the whole thing to go away.

Bunning ultimately dropped his demands Tuesday night that the $10 billion package be fully paid for, but not before causing a major headache for his party. And equally troubling for Republicans was that it reminded them of Bunning’s erratic behavior of last year, when he repeatedly clashed with his leadership over whether he should retire or run for a third term.

When it became clear that party leaders felt they’d have a better chance of holding Bunning’s seat in 2010 if he chose to retire, the Kentucky lawmaker dug his heels in and lashed out at McConnell and National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas)

In conference calls with Kentucky press, Bunning called McConnell a “control freak” and accused the Minority Leader of trying to impede his re-election fundraising efforts. Bunning also blamed McConnell for GOP losses in the Senate in the 2006 and 2008 cycles, and he claimed that he would be better served if McConnell didn’t back him for a another term in 2010.

As for Cornyn, Bunning threatened to sue the NRSC if it supported another Republican for his seat and stated that he had trouble taking the Texas Senator at his word.

Bunning’s rants have also occasionally drifted into topics that were neither political nor policy-oriented. In one conference call with Kentucky reporters in May 2009, he appeared to challenge one political writer to a feat of strength. And in February 2009, when Bunning was a guest speaker at a local Lincoln Day dinner, he suggested that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg would be dead from pancreatic cancer within nine months. Bunning later apologized for the comment, saying he did not intend to insult the ailing jurist.

Initially, some of Bunning’s colleagues hoped his filibuster of the benefits package, which forced furloughs of federal workers and halted unemployment insurance payments, would be resolved quickly. But as has proved the case with Bunning before, he wouldn’t back down or listen to any of his colleagues and agree to a deal.

Making matters worse was the fact that Bunning and McConnell are barely on speaking terms. Bunning still blames McConnell for forcing him from his re-election bid. As such, McConnell had little capital to spend to end the impasse. Neither McConnell nor his office would comment on Bunning’s demands over the weekend, and on Tuesday McConnell tried to avoid the issue altogether.

[IMGCAP(1)]”We’re working on this, and we believe we can reach a consent agreement that will allow some amendments and will allow us to approve the short-term measure and move ahead,” McConnell said. “Are there any questions on any other subject?”

McConnell’s response to Bunning’s crusade left his Conference scrambling. Just a handful of Senators rose to defend the acerbic Bunning. Ironically, Cornyn was among the few, heading to the floor Monday to say that he “admire[d] the courage of the junior Senator from Kentucky, Mr. Bunning.”

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) blamed the media for overplaying the episode: “This is not as big of a deal as some of you are trying to make it.”

“Honestly I think Sen. Bunning is making a valid point. … I love his personality. He’s a gutsy guy who fights for what he believes in,” Hatch said. “He shouldn’t be condemned for that.”

Yet others in the Conference just tried to make the issue go away.

Moderate Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) mounted a failed attempt to stop Bunning on Tuesday morning, urging an agreement to allow for a vote on the benefits extension. Not surprisingly, Bunning rejected her plea.

For his part, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) tried to keep an arm’s length from the whole ordeal, quipping Tuesday, “Don’t I have a speaking engagement somewhere?”

In the end, Bunning agreed to a deal, but before doing so, he got in a shot at McConnell. Reading from a letter of a constituent who praised his stand against the bill, Bunning said:

“It’s too bad Sen. Mitch McConnell and some of the elected officials on your side of the aisle do not have the backbone or your sense of decency when it comes to keeping their promises to the American people.”

Emily Pierce contributed to this report.

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