Jobless aid hits stronger head winds in Congress

Sen. Jim Bunning of Kentucky found few friends by his side this year when he stood in his cranky way against unemployment benefits as the nation inched toward a 10% jobless rate.

Even his fellow Republicans squirmed.

But now, even as the Senate is poised this week to approve aid for more than 2.5 million out-of-work Americans whose benefits have run out, Bunning’s insistence that aid not add to the national debt may have indelibly altered the debate.

If approved, this may be the last package of jobless benefits that Congress can pass without making offsetting cuts. The reason: Lawmakers in both parties have grown squeamish about being seen as soft on deficit spending.

Public outrage over Washington’s rising debt runs higher now than when Bunning made his solo stand, and polls show many voters are not convinced that the unemployed should continue receiving aid if it means more debt.

A Bloomberg poll last week showed public attitudes were split over extending benefits, with 47% in favor and 49% opposed. A CBS News poll showed 52% believed the aid should be extended, even if it adds to the deficit.

“It may well be that Bunning helped begin something,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), one of the few who stood by the 78-year-old Kentuckian during his lonely, late-night filibuster fight in February. “All I can say is, I’m over bills coming out of here that are not paid for.”

On Tuesday, after repeatedly having tried and failed to again extend unemployment aid, Senate Democratic leaders hope the incoming senator from West Virginia will provide the 60th vote needed to overcome a Republican-led filibuster.

Fifteen minutes after Carte Goodwin is sworn in to succeed longtime Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, who died last month, leaders will call a key procedural vote.

" Democrats are not about to turn our backs on out-of-work Americans, which is why we are trying to help them keep their heads above water in this crisis,” Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the majority leader, said last week.

The difficulty Reid now faces in assembling the votes needed to extend jobless benefits is a clear departure from just a few months ago — and it foreshadows the future hurdles.

Just four months ago, after Bunning’s Republican colleagues encouraged him to drop his solo stand, a bipartisan group of 78 senators went on to approve jobless aid through March.

But Bunning’s defiance entered the vernacular, giving voice to a political narrative for both parties heading into the fall’s midterm elections.

Republicans embrace Bunning’s deficit hawkishness as their own, finding popular appeal in railing against profligate Washington even as they risk appearing insensitive to people out of work.

Democrats, meanwhile, are employing a dual strategy, positioning themselves as helping unemployed Americans while accommodating the deficit-weary in their own ranks by paring back spending packages.

“What Bunning did resonated with a lot of people who were concerned about the deficit,” said Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a budget watchdog group.

“He said, ‘Look, this is what making hard choices is all about.’ That makes sense to a lot of people. What doesn’t make sense to me is cutting off unemployment benefits when you have 10% unemployment. I don’t think it’s drawing the line in the sand in the right place.”

And that is a point both sides will debate at a time when the economic recovery is uncertain and experts differ over whether it is more important to get money into the hands of those who will probably stimulate the economy by spending it, or better to rein in the debt.

If the Senate passed the $33.9-billion aid package, it would need to be sent to the House for approval.

“Bunning was a gift. His obstruction really put a face on the agenda of the Republican Party,” said Doug Thornell, a spokesman for Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), a House Democratic leader. “It crystallized the debate.”

A Baseball Hall of Fame member who is retiring this year from the Senate after two terms, Bunning takes little satisfaction from his newfound influence.

This latest aid package has been scaled back, but it still goes too far for Bunning. He wanted the unemployment money completely offset by cuts elsewhere — preferably from unused stimulus funds from the federal economic recovery act.

“That doesn’t give me any relief, because they’re still saying to us, ‘We think it’s an emergency,’ and it isn’t,” Bunning said in an interview last week.

“The debate has changed only to the point that my side, all of a sudden now, has gotten religion. It isn’t a question of the worthiness of the unemployment benefit; it’s a question of adding it to the debt that my grandkid gets stuck with.”