July 19 (Bloomberg) -- It turns out U.S. Senator Jim Bunning was ahead of the curve.
Four months after the Kentucky Republican, a Hall of Fame former major league baseball pitcher, made colleagues squirm by blocking an extension of unemployment benefits for Americans out of work long-term, the party has adopted his cause as its own. Republicans are holding up aid for millions of jobless people while insisting that Democrats cut spending elsewhere to keep from adding to the federal deficit.
While Bunning was called insensitive and accused of throwing a “beanball” at the unemployed, Republicans now find that blocking jobless aid in an election year can be good politics. Public opinion polls, the Tea Party movement and the defeat of Utah Senator Bob Bennett underscore the unhappiness of party voters with the $13.2 trillion national debt. In addition, few of the Republicans who voted against the benefits face a competitive Democratic challenge.
“This is the issue across the country,” Senator John Cornyn, a Texas Republican who leads his party’s campaign committee, said in an interview. “We’ve had a few primaries and elections along the way and people understand the ferocity of the public’s view on this.”
Senate leaders plan a new vote on extension of benefits tomorrow. Democrats reduced their jobless plan to $34 billion from more than $100 billion in search of approval. After falling one vote short June 30, the Senate will gain another Democrat with the swearing-in of Carte Goodwin as successor to Democrat Robert Byrd of West Virginia, who died June 28.
President Barack Obama criticized Republicans for thwarting the jobless benefits in his July 17 weekly address on radio and the Internet. “Think about what these stalling tactics mean for the millions of Americans who’ve lost their jobs since the recession began,” he said. “For many, it was the only way to make ends meet while searching for work.”
Benefits for the long-term jobless expired 48 days ago as a result of the impasse, cutting off aid to 2.5 million Americans with the total growing by 200,000 a week. There are almost five unemployed Americans for every job opening, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Democrats call Republican deficit concerns hypocritical after the party’s deputy leader, Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona, said July 11 he backs extending former President George W. Bush’s tax cuts for high-income Americans even if it swells the deficit by almost $700 billion in 10 years.
“According to our Republican colleagues, adding massively to the deficit to finance tax breaks for the wealthy is fine, but adding to the deficit to extend benefits for the long-term unemployed is unacceptable,” said Senator Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat. “I am lost in the logic of that.”
The jobless benefits were first allowed to lapse for two days in March when Bunning singlehandedly blocked a vote on a $10 billion short-term extension.
Other Republicans scrambled to distance themselves from him with Cornyn telling reporters Bunning didn’t represent the party. A Philadelphia Inquirer editorial said Bunning “threw a beanball at the unemployed.” The aid was restored when 21 of 40 Senate Republicans voted with Democrats to borrow money to pay for it.
Now, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky is leading the fight against the aid extension with the support of almost every Republican.
“Our party caught up with the people Bunning was already with,” said New Hampshire Republican Judd Gregg.
Republicans want to pay for the extension with unspent federal stimulus money. Democrats say extending unemployment insurance is traditionally an emergency priority that can be financed by adding to the deficit.
Democrats won over Maine Republicans Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe on June 30, while Nebraska Democratic Senator Ben Nelson voted with the Republicans. Nebraska has a 4.9 percent unemployment rate, the third-lowest in the nation.
The plan to be voted on tomorrow would renew through November a program offering the jobless up to 99 weeks of benefits.
Bob Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, an Arlington, Virginia, group that promotes balanced budgets, called the fight “odd” because the proposed aid is a small fraction of the $10 trillion in deficits the government is projected to run up over the next decade.
“Attacking that is not attacking the real deficit issue,” Bixby said. “Unemployment benefits seem to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
He was referring to a Republican primary season in which Bennett and South Carolina Representative Bob Inglis were defeated by more conservative candidates, Florida Governor Charlie Crist was chased out of his party’s Senate campaign and Tea Party favorites Rand Paul and Sharron Angle won Republican nominations in Kentucky and Nevada.
“I don’t think it’s coincidental,” said Democratic pollster Peter Hart, chairman of Peter D. Hart Research Associates. “If it makes them appear that they are not part of the problem and not part of Washington, then that’s the best news they could have.”
Bunning, who said he’s been vindicated, said it’s numbers like those that brought colleagues around to his side.
“All of a sudden we start seeing in our conference that debt is one of the top three issues in every poll that is taken,” said Bunning. “So guess what? Politically, it was the smart thing to do.”