Jim Bunning got away with blocking an extension of unemployment benefits and COBRA on Thursday night because “coordinated support materialized” among Republicans to help Bunning in his cause, Sen. Jeff Merkley explained in a conference call this morning.
Merkley (D-OR), Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and Jack Reed (D-RI) participated in the call, about the urgent need to pass an extension of unemployment benefits and the 65% COBRA subsidy, which will run out for hundreds of thousands of Americans on Sunday. Bunning (R-KY) waged what amounted to a one-man filibuster at the end of the week, refusing unanimous consent to move to a short-term extension of benefits before the deadline. Bunning wanted the package of extensions to be paid for, but when Harry Reid offered Bunning an amendment to that effect, he said he wouldn’t accept that because the amendment wouldn’t pass. (Really.)
All three Senators, whose states are experiencing high unemployment rates, expressed outrage at Bunning’s action, discussing the real-world consequences for their constituents. Stabenow said that 62,000 Michiganders would lose their unemployment benefits on Sunday, and by the end of March, across the country 1.2 million would lose them if no action was taken. Furthermore, almost half of those now receiving unemployment benefits are getting them through some form of extension, so the result of inaction could be catastrophic.
Reed added that historically, whenever the unemployment rate exceeded 7.4%, Congress has always extended benefits, and that such extensions generally create $2 in the economy for every $1 spent (you could say that they pay for themselves, which was Bunning’s entire objection). Merkley noted the expense to state unemployment agencies to send out notices to shut down benefits, only to start them up again if they are extended. “The Republican filibuster is irresponsible,” he said. “Republicans didn’t filibuster to pay for tax cuts for the wealthy, but when families are struggling, they take this outrageous action.”
I asked the Senators why they didn’t continue asking for unanimous consent agreements on Thursday night, forcing Bunning to stay on the floor and continue his crusade. He was already getting belligerent, and could have just faded through the exhaustion of an all-night filibuster, but the Senate adjourned around midnight. Many Senate observers have described this as letting Bunning win.
Sen. Merkley, the only one of the three who was on the floor that night, responded. “When it was Bunning by himself, the prospect of breaking him was very real,” he said. “But when coordinated support materialized, it became clear we weren’t going to be able to overcome this on the floor.” In other words, other Republican Senators stopped by on the floor in reserve, and if Bunning could no longer continue, they stood ready to step in and object to any unanimous consent agreement. Obviously, UC agreements require… unanimous consent, so any Senator can block them. Merkley identified Bob Corker (R-TN) as one of the Senators who reached the floor late at night, and Stabenow added that Jeff Sessions (R-AL) showed up earlier in the evening.
“The most important thing is the people impacted,” Stabenow said, “But on the process, Bunning was concerned about paying for the extension, he was offered an amendment and he didn’t accept it. In the Senate we’ve seen a hijacking of the legislative process. In a legislature you debate a policy and then you vote. Voting is the American way. Instead, Bunning chose to use the filibuster in blocking and hijacking the system.”
You can argue that the Senate used bad time management in not giving enough space to file cloture and getting a vote to override Bunning with a short-term extension of what would expire, not just unemployment benefits and the COBRA subsidy but also the Medicare doctors fix and some other matters. But if Republicans were prepared to switch off in objecting to UC requests, then they could have held out at least until the Sunday deadline, it seems.
Therefore it’s wrong to call this Jim Bunning’s filibuster. It was a Republican filibuster, as they offered “passive support,” as Stabenow put it. “We’re going to see benefits run out on Sunday” as a result, she concluded. “Where is the Republican leadership? Where will it be next week?”