Jim Bunning explains how his once-unpopular stance has become GOP's go-to argument

07/27/2010 06:09 AM

The weight of the national debt has finally sunk in with other Republicans, U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning said in explaining why most of his GOP colleagues are now preaching the same pay-as-you-go approach for which Bunning got slammed this spring.

Five months ago, Bunning was branded public enemy number one by many Democrats, out-of-work Americans, some newspaper editorial boards and even a Sports Illustrated columnist when Bunning blocked legislation that would extend unemployment benefits to those put out of work by the recession. His point was that Congress shouldn’t approve any additional spending unless it comes with a corresponding way to cover the cost.

But even most Republicans at the time — including Kentucky’s senior U.S. senator and GOP Senate leader, Mitch McConnell — backed away from Bunning’s stance. McConnell said he was “disappointed” the benefits ran out and did not join Bunning in blocking the extension.

Now, Bunning’s position has become the default response for the GOP as they debated another $34 billion unemployment benefits extension (which passed last week) as well as an extension of aid to states to help cover the state-administered Medicaid program, which remains in legislative limbo. Kentucky would face a $238 million shortfall in 2011 if the extension isn’t passed.

So what changed within the Republican ranks since early March? Here’s what Bunning told cn|2 Politics earlier this month about that (as well as his relationship with McConnell):

A couple Washington-based reporters have credited Bunning with being the trend-setter for the Republicans. Most notably, the Courier-Journal’s James Carroll and the L.A. Times’ Lisa Mascaro have written over the last month that many Republicans in Congress and those running to come to Washington have joined the Bunning chorus, which also is similar to the message being delivered at tea party movement rallies. “

“Bunning’s insistence that aid not add to the national debt may have indelibly altered the debate,” Mascaro wrote earlier this month before the Senate ended up approving the latest round of unemployment benefits with the necessary 60 votes.

One of the next items on Congress’s to-do list, however, could challenge that position. Republicans, including Bunning, are pushing to make permanent the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts passed under President George W. Bush. The New York Times reported Sunday that the tax-cut issue is shaping up as the next big debate out of Washington heading into the fall election season.

Those tax cuts included reducing income tax rates for middle class and wealthy Americans as well as shelving the tax on a dead person’s estate. Doing so, however, comes with a price and potentially could add to the debt. From the Times article:

The issue is further complicated by the rising concern among voters about the federal deficit, which would be increased by roughly $1.5 trillion over 10 years just by continuing the tax breaks for the middle class. Many economists say the nation’s debt load is already headed to risky levels.

“The big questions before us now are whether we should make some of these tax cuts permanent, and if so, which ones,” (Democratic Sen. Max) Baucus said at a recent public hearing. “But that’s not the only challenge. There’s another elephant in the room — the budget deficit. And that elephant is growing.”

- Ryan Alessi

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