Bunning blinks

BUNNING BLINKS…. It took a while, but Kentucky’s unstable senator finally ended his hostage standoff late yesterday, accepting a useless concession he could have had days ago.

For five days, retiring Sen. Jim Bunning held his fellow Republicans hostage. He stood his ground, angry and alone, a one-man blockade against unemployment benefits, Medicare payments to doctors, satellite TV to rural Americans and paychecks to highway workers.

“Enough,” the Kentucky Republican thundered repeatedly, his face red, as he stood in the way of Washington spending more money he said it didn’t have on an extension of popular programs. Finally, as supporters and critics yelled at each other outside his Lexington office, he capitulated from the well of the Senate on Tuesday night.

Relentless attacks from Democrats and withering support from Republicans, worried that the Hall of Fame pitcher was turning the party’s message of principled objection to raging obstructionism, ended Bunning’s stand. He had forced about 2,000 federal employees into furloughs and imperiled jobless benefits for millions.

By mid-day, Bunning indicated his willingness to find a resolution, perhaps aware that he was fighting a losing crusade. A deal was struck — to appease Bunning, the Senate would consider an amendment to offset the cost of the legislation, followed by a vote on the bill itself. Knowing that Bunning’s amendment would fail, it wasn’t much of a concession on the part of Senate leaders.

And sure enough, 43 senators backed Bunning’s measure. A half-hour later, the Senate voted on extending unemployment benefits, which passed 78 to 19. All 19 votes in opposition were from the Republican side of the aisle, on legislation that was poised to pass with unanimous support as recently as Friday.

In terms of the larger win-lose dynamic, it’s hard to see this mini-shutdown as anything but a humiliating defeat for Bunning and the GOP. The nation was outraged by the tantrum and its real-world consequences — the entire stunt had become an institutional embarrassment — forcing the retiring right-wing senator to back down/

The thousands of furloughed transportation workers who were sent home by Bunning may return to their job sites as early as today. The checks will start being cut on unemployment benefits, and the aid will be retroactive.

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Steve Benen

Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.