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Bunning Blocks Unemployment Benefits and COBRA Extension

No relief - Sen. Jim Bunning (R-KY)

For those who have always wanted to “make ’em filibuster,” you actually saw a variant of it last night, if you were paying attention. Jim Bunning, the slightly kooky retiring Senator from Kentucky, refused unanimous consent to move to a bill extending unemployment benefits and the COBRA subsidy for 30 days, basically ensuring that millions of people will see their benefits run out on Sunday, barring some miracle today. Democrats went until midnight on the floor of the Senate trying to get past Bunning, but he stuck it out for a few hours, refusing to consent. And he had the gall to complain that he missed the Kentucky-South Carolina basketball game, while denying help to the jobless and the suffering.

And while he said the Senate spent almost three hours “telling everybody in America that Senator Bunning doesn’t give a damn about people who are on unemployment,” he assured those still watching that he was indeed interested in renewing the programs as long as it can be done to his satisfaction.

Senator Richard Jr. Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat, said he intended to try to break the impasse again Friday morning but Mr. Bunning indicated he would again be on hand.

Senator Jim Bunning, the conservative Kentucky Republican, insisted that the jobless pay due to run out Sunday night should be paid for rather than added to the deficit as an emergency. During the debate, Mr. Bunning stood rigidly at his desk in the back row of the Senate and objected to repeated Democrat attempts for agreement to extend unemployment coverage through April 5.

“I believe we should pay for it,” declared Mr. Bunning, who said he was determined to remain to thwart the Democrats. “I’ll be here as long as you are here.”

Democrats went one by one giving speeches intended to shame Bunning, but the Senate operates under rules of unanimous consent. And overriding his objections, if he does not leave the floor or otherwise miss a call for unanimous consent (which the Democrats attempted every half-hour) would require a cloture vote, which cannot be accomplished before the deadline. You can accuse the Democrats of poor clock management, but basically they have to bow and scrape just to get something done that will pass 97-1 when it comes to a final vote.

And while this was relatively painless (outside of the basketball game) for Bunning, millions of real people will suffer, the kind of people Rep. Dean Heller (R-NV) calls hobos.

There’s an easy way to handle Bunning’s call for an offset – debate it and put it to a vote. If it wins, great. If it loses, great. Then we move on to a final vote. That’s called legislating, in a functional lawmaking body.

I try to always say that we need a change in Senate rules, not the filibuster, because the rules offer lots more veto points than just those associated with cloture. And because we have an inattentive public and media, making the Republicans bear the cost of obstruction is a nearly impossible task.

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David Dayen

David Dayen