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On Unemployment, We’ve Seen This Movie Before

There’s plenty of criticism being directed today at Sen. Jim Bunning, the Kentucky Republican who single-handedly prevented the Democrats from extending the filing deadline for unemployment benefits, which arrives Sunday.

Bunning says that he wants the $10 billion cost to be paid for with cuts elsewhere, and, despite his past support for much larger unfunded bills, we’ll take him at his word. But there’s another good reason that Republicans want to prolong the debate over the unemployment benefits bill: Namely, it keeps all other Democratic priorities off the Senate floor.

If that sounds familiar it’s because GOP leaders used the same tactic in October, when they spent weeks delaying a UI extension that eventually passed 98 to 0. Now, like then, they know that the unemployment extension will pass. Now, like then, they know that most (if not all) of their caucus will vote for it. By why would they want the process to move quickly when it would simply allow Democrats to tackle more items on their legislative wish-list before the elections? The longer the Senate is forced to debate must-pass bills like unemployment benefits, the shorter a window Democrats will have to move things like health care reform, financial reform, climate legislation, etc. (The backlog is enormous: There are nearly 300 bills idling in the Senate that House Democrats have already passed this Congress. Few are supported by the Republicans.)

The reason Republicans have chosen this route is simple: It’s worked.

The delay on UI last year kept health care reform off the floor, ultimately forcing a Christmas Eve vote that pushed the House/Senate health reform negotiations into January. Then Scott Brown happened. Then health reform sputtered.

For the Republicans, there are perils here. More than 1 million unemployed workers stand to lose their benefits in March if Congress fails to extend the filing deadline. Republicans don’t want to be blamed when folks start exhausting those benefits, so who do they send to the floor (solo) to delay the process, but the least popular guy in the building — the tempestuous Jim Bunning, who’s retiring at the end of the year because Republican leadership, behind fellow Kentuckian Mitch McConnell, basically pushed him out.

Bunning is kind-of like the hockey thug who’s only role is to go out and punch the other team’s star player. It can’t hurt his reputation at all; even if it did, he’s not up for re-election; and he alone absorbs all the media attention and public scrutiny, while GOP leaders keep mostly silent. (McConnell, after all, has been distancing himself since Wednesday, when Bunning’s one-man filibuster began.)

So the players have changed, but the strategy’s the same: Just stall. Unfortunately for the unemployed, it seems to be working again.

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