POLITICO (Washington) Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) is losing Republican support for his single-handed decision to prevent a critical aid package from landing on President Barack Obama’s desk, with Republicans fearing the political backlash from the lapse of unemployment benefits, health care coverage, highway funding and Medicare reimbursement fees for doctors.
On the floor Tuesday morning, Sen. Susan Collins became the first Senate Republican to forcefully criticize Bunning, urging the retiring Kentucky Republican to put aside an objection that has dominated the news since he waged a lonely fight against the measure last Thursday.
“I object,” Bunning, from his desk in the back row of the Senate, said in response to Collins’ request.
Senate Republicans expressed hope Tuesday that Bunning to could talked into backing down, saying they were discussing a deal to give Bunning a vote on his plan to pay for the $10 billion package. But no deal has yet been reached.
Collins, a moderate Maine Republican, later said she was “disappointed” and that “Sen. Bunning’s views do not represent the majority of the Republican caucus.”
“It’s important that the American people understand that there is bipartisan support for extending these vital programs - this is not a partisan issue,” Collins told reporters. “It only adds to the frustration of the American people when we are unable to act on a measure that has overwhelming support.”
But Collins isn’t alone, as a wide spectrum of the Republican Senate Conference is watching Bunning’s one man show and becoming concerned.
Asked if he was worried about the public perception that Republicans are obstructionists, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), one of the more conservative members of the Senate said: “I am concerned about that,” saying he wants funding to flow to highways and bridges. Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown said that Bunning was simply concerned about paying for the benefits package - but asked if he shared that concern, Brown said, “I have to go,” and took a call on his cell.
Collins said she began conversations with GOP colleagues on Friday and that “many” shared her concerns, expecting more Republican criticism at Bunning through the course of the day. She informed Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) about her decision to come forward Tuesday, saying he “appreciated my letting him know.”
McConnell, who has a frosty relationship with his home-state colleague Bunning, has been quiet through the episode, and following Collins’ move, he launched into a speech criticizing Democrats on health care legislation.
Bunning says he supports the package, but has objected to quick passage on the grounds that the $10 billion should be paid for through unspent funds in the economic stimulus law. Since programs in the stalled package expired Sunday, Democrats have launched a fierce campaign to portray Bunning and a complicit GOP as insensitive to suffering Americans.
Looking at Bunning, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said: “You’ve made your point. You made it well. I understand that you want this to paid for.”
In lieu of passing the extenders by unanimous consent, the Senate will vote on a bill introduced yesterday by Reid and Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) that would retroactively grant benefits to those affected by the gap in coverage created by Bunning’s objection.
“I have had numerous conversations with my Republican colleagues who are very concerned about the expiration of these laws,” Collins said. “They’re hearing from their unemployed constituents who do not understand why Congress cannot act together on a short-term extension of vital programs like unemployment benefits.”