What Do Unemployment, College Basketball and Politics Have in Common?

Republican Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., foiled Democratic attempts to enact a short-term extension of unemployment benefits and COBRA subsidies for a million Americans.

Video of Senator Jim Bunning on unemployment benefits.Play
Republican Senator Bunning Foils Democratic Attempts to Extend Unemployment Benefits

In the process, he may restrict access to network television for his rural constituents. When Bunning objected to the last-minute vote he complained that he was forced to miss the University of Kentucky college basketball game, which was broadcast on ESPN2.

Bunning doesn't like Democrats' version of a bill to temporarily extend unemployment benefits, subsidies of COBRA insurance and many other things because he wants to pay for it with unused stimulus funds. More than a million Americans long out of work will exhaust their benefits starting Sunday.

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"I have missed the Kentucky-South Carolina game that started at 9:00, and it's the only redeeming chance we had to beat South Carolina since they're the only team that has beat Kentucky this year," said Bunning just before midnight Thursday.

The Wildcats are ranked number two and the game last night was to avenge their only loss of the season. Bunning was particularly frustrated, perhaps, because Kentucky won 82-61.

But here's where the political serendipity kicks in. Bunning's objection could keep a lot of Kentuckians in rural areas from seeing Kentucky play games too. While their matchup against Tennessee on Saturday is safe, starting Monday, because of Bunning's objection, satellite providers will have to stop allowing some rural subscribers to watch network television. Kentucky's next network-broadcast game, to be shown on ABC, is against Florida on March 7.

The bill Bunning objected to also included a temporary extension of the law that allows satellite television providers servicing areas without network affiliates to broadcast network service from different areas.

Democrats kept the Senate in session last night until nearly midnight as Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill, and others subjected Bunning to a public shaming on the Senate floor for his objection. They argued he was making a political point about the deficit at the expense of the unemployed.

Late-Night Senate Session

"If we are going to fight this war on the deficit and the debt why are we going to fight it on the backs of unemployed people?" asked Durbin.

They repeatedly tried to seek Bunning's consent to move forward with the measure and he repeatedly objected.

Bunning has a curmudgeonly demeanor and is known for dramatic proclamations and prickly floor speeches. He had faced a tough reelection battle even in the red state of Kentucky and decided in July not to seek reelection and he blamed party leaders.

"Over the past year, some of the leaders of the Republican Party in the Senate have done everything in their power to dry up my fundraising," said Bunning in a statement July 27, 2009.

And after he objected to extending unemployment benefits Thursday night, Bunning upbraided his colleagues and sounded similar to Sen. Evan Bayh, the Indiana Democrat who recently decided not to run for reelection.

"I spent 12 and 12 in this body, 12 here and 12 in the house," said Bunning. "And we're not conning the people in the United States about anything," said Bunning. "They know what's going on. That's why they're madder than heck. They're tired of senators that talk out of both sides of their mouth," he said.

Bunning sounded a little bitter when he talked about the Senate election commercials (without his own) rural Kentuckians would miss when their satellite TV stops.

"I feel sorry for the people in Kentucky that live in East Kentucky that may lose their satellite home viewer act for a day or two because they'll miss all those campaign commercials that are going on, and I know how they desperately want to watch those," he said.

Bunning again mentioned the Senate campaign going on without him later in the speech.

"If you think the tea party people are crazy, get them involved in your Senate race. Or get them against you when you're running," he said.

A new favorite in the Kentucky Republican Senate primary is Rand Paul, the son of Libertarian Republican Ron Paul, R-Texas.

Extension of Benefits Debate

But Bunning, alone among his Republican colleagues, would not bend on his objection to extending benefits without a way to offset the $10 billion expenditure elsewhere in the budget.

"In my 24 years of service, I have never seen the congress of the United States perform as badly as we are performing presently," said Bunning.

The benefits, already extended several times, will run out for more than a million workers this starting this weekend.

The number of unemployed losing benefits would snowball to nearly 5 million by June if Senators cannot reach agreement.

Bunning sparred with Democrats on the floor Thursday night. He said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was at fault.

Bunning also expressed frustration with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid for paring down a jobs bill passed earlier this week. That jobs bill originally included a three- month extension of unemployment benefits. But Reid pulled the unemployment and COBRA measures as well as unrelated tax credits to consider later in March. Reid had said he wanted the original jobs bill to focus on job creation measures like a payroll tax credit for employers.

If Democrats had considered that bill earlier in the week, said Bunning, "We wouldn't have spent three hours-plus telling everybody in the United States of America that Senator Bunning doesn't give a damn about the people that are on unemployment, the doctors that I represent, that I didn't want to extend (payments to Medicare doctors), that all of the other things -- COBRA, flood insurance, small business loans and small business provisions."

Republicans criticized Reid's selection of the pared down bill because many favored the larger proposal, which included a number of popular tax credits.

But only Bunning objected tonight to the short-term unemployment extension.

Senators had spent the last two days burning procedurally mandated floor time on a tourism promotion bill favored by Reid, who represents the tourism-dependent state of Nevada. An extension of unemployment benefits in November took nearly a month even though it ultimately passed 98-0.

Reid's travel promotion bill now goes to the President. Republicans, frustrated that they could not amend the bill, held it up for two days on the Senate floor even though in the end, it passed 78-18.

If Congress does nothing by Saturday midnight, many who have been unemployed for more than one year and are still actively seeking work will no longer receive benefits. This includes people in Alabama, Indiana, Colorado, South Carolina, Delaware, Tennessee, Texas, West Virginia. If Congress does not act by March 6, the jobless in Arizona, D.C., Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Maine, New York, Ohio and Virginia will suffer the same fate.

Democrats say they hope to pass a benefits extension early next week if Bunning drops his objection. They may be able to put people who have lost benefits back on the rolls.