Bunning Fight Over Jobless Bill Shows Senator’s Contempt for GOP Leader

Sen. Jim Bunning is shown here being questioned by an ABC News reporter in an elevator on Capitol Hill Monday. (ABC News)

Sen. Jim Bunning is shown here being questioned by an ABC News reporter in an elevator on Capitol Hill Monday. (ABC News)

The gruff, irascible style of Sen. Jim Bunning may not have earned him any friends in the Senate but it could give the retiring lawmaker the last laugh as he victoriously spits in the eye of colleagues after creating a political firestorm over jobless benefits that has dismayed Republicans and delighted Democrats.

Bunning, 79, a baseball Hall of Famer who rubs even his fellow party members the wrong way, is retiring at the end of the current session, which gives Senate leaders little leverage to try to control him. 

The freedom has led to a five-day fight over a jobless benefits bill from which Bunning may emerge bruised but victorious. It also has forced members to take a good look at inconsistencies in their own legislative exploits.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid struck a deal with Bunning late Tuesday to end the standoff over the extension of jobless benefits

The legislation has caused heartache for members of Bunning's party as Democrats have made him a poster boy for GOP obstructionism. But it has also frustrated Democrats who've been forced to legislate without budget gimmicks.

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Either way it's no skinned nose for Bunning, whose long-playing and well-publicized feud with his fellow Kentucky colleague, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, boiled over on Tuesday.

Bunning has been elected twice to the Senate but was seen as vulnerable in this year's election after nearly losing his 2004 re-election bid to a little-known Democrat from eastern Kentucky. 

McConnell refused very publicly to support Bunning for a 2010 bid, and Bunning has felt unrestrained in his contempt since then.

In May 2009, Bunning slammed McConnell for Republican losses in the Senate.

"Do you realize that under our dynamic leadership of our leader, we have gone from 55 and probably to 40 (Senate seats) in two election cycles, and if the tea leaves that I read are correct, we will wind up with about 36 after this election cycle," he told the Louisville Courier-Journal.

"So if leadership means anything, it means you don't lose … approximately 19 seats in three election cycles with good leadership," he said.

Later, when Bunning announced he would not seek another term, he issued a scowling statement, noting that the lack of support has led to a dearth in funding for his campaign.

"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. The simple fact is that I have not raised the funds necessary to run an effective campaign for the U.S. Senate," he said at the time. 

Now a lame-duck, the Kentucky Republican lashed out once more -- single-handedly blocking stopgap legislation to pay for a temporary extension of jobless and COBRA benefits as well as transportation funding and money to shield doctors from Medicare cuts.

As the curtain came down on the 12th act in the latest legislative tussle -- another blocked vote by the senator -- Bunning offered one more shot at McConnell, reading an apparent letter from one of his constituents in which he railed against what he called the hypocrisy in Washington.

"It's too bad Senator Mitch McConnell and some of the elected officials on your side of the aisle do not have the backbone of your sense of decency when it comes to keeping their promises to the American people," Bunning said, reading the missive.

As the end of the feud appeared near, one fiscal hawk emerged from the party shell and praised Bunning for his nerve. 

"Senator Bunning was right to address this problem and I commend him for it, and I hope our colleagues will stop the hypocrisy," said Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C. "I want to thank Senator Bunning for his courage and clarity."

Bunning finally relented on seeking alternative ways to pay for the deficit-inducing $10 billion bill as Reid, who has fiercely duked it out with Bunning over his opposition to the bill, worked on a compromise proposal

Sources told Fox News the compromise came after Republican leaders, reaching their limit on what they could endure from the political fallout over Bunning's actions, approached Bunning for a resolution to the impasse.

In sporting form, Bunning said the GOP leadership had not been involved with the compromise.

"I decided that we ought to try our best to get a compromise and pay for it, that the other side would agree to," he told Fox News.

Republicans will offer amendments -- Bunning's demands -- to pay for the temporary extension of benefits for 400,000 unemployed workers. Unobligated stimulus money will pay for the costs of the bill and an across-the-board cut in discretionary spending

The temporary extensions, if passed, will be retroactive to Monday. No one will lose any benefits as a result and Bunning can claim that he won the fiscal responsibility battle. 

But while Bunning may also have won the internecine feud with McConnell, McConnell will be in the Senate next year without his Kentucky colleague, and by that standard, the minority leader may have won the war.

Fox News' Trish Turner contributed to this report.