Democrats See 1995 Parallels In Latest Showdown

Two thousand federal transportation workers were furloughed Monday because a GOP senator blocked a bill extending federal highway building as well as unemployment benefits and other programs. For some it brought memories of a government shutdown triggered by Republicans during the Clinton administration 14 years ago, a political loser for the GOP, but this one might be different.

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Two thousand federal transportation workers were furloughed today, sent home without pay. Thats because a Republican senator has blocked a bill extending federal highway building as well as unemployment benefits and other programs. For some, the stoppage brought memories of a government shutdown triggered by Republicans during the Clinton administration 14 years ago. That one turned out to be a political loser for the GOP. But as NPRs national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports, this one might be different.

MARA LIASSON: The legislation is being held up by Kentucky Republican Jim Bunning who went to the floor of the Senate today to explain why.

Senator JIM BUNNING (Republican, Kentucky): If we cant find $10 billion to pay for something that we all support, we will never pay for anything on the floor of this U.S. Senate.

LIASSON: Bunning, like other senators, has voted for unfunded items before, but in February the Senate voted for a so-called pay-as-you-go bill and Bunning says that means no more spending borrowed money. Bunning clearly regards himself as Horatius at the bridge, but some Democrats think this tactic will help them. Chris Lehane is a Democratic strategist who worked in the Clinton White House during the last Republican-initiated government shutdown.

Mr. CHRIS LEHANE (Democratic Strategist): Jim Bunning, prior to becoming a politician, was a Major League baseball pitcher. And, you know, with his actions he is throwing the political equivalent of a hanging curve ball.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEHANE: That allows the Democrats really to take the pitch and knock it out of the park.

LIASSON: And they leapt at the chance with a flurry of emails and press conferences. Democrats were everywhere at once decrying Bunnings action. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs blasted him from the podium of the briefing room. And in Florida, Vice President Joe Biden weighed in.

Vice President JOE BIDEN: If his filibuster succeeds, for example, itll mean that state and local governments wont get paid for projects theyve already done. It means furloughing 2,000 people this week alone.

LIASSON: It wasnt hard to figure out the politics of this, says Chris Lehane, who threw out another baseball metaphor and called the Bunning filibuster a triple play.

Mr. LEHANE: First of all, you have someone who is effectively stopping jobs from happening. Secondly, its a Republican in the United States Senate using one of what, at least to public, will appear to be a Byzantine tool to obstruct progress. And third, its dealing with projects construction projects, road projects - that the public generally likes.

LIASSON: The Democrats may have been in a rush because their window of opportunity is closing quickly. Yesterday on Fox News Sunday, Jon Kyl, the number two Republican in the Senate, said his party plans to cut the Bunning protest short.

Senator JON KYL (Republican, Arizona): All Senator Bunning was saying, quite correctly, is it ought to be paid for.

Unidentified Man: So, so...

Sen. KYL: And whats the first thing we do, we exempt this bill from it. It will pass though, I...

LIASSON: Republicans dont want to make their point about government spending by causing furloughs of government workers because they remember what happened the last time they tried something like this.

Mr. TONY BLANKLEY (Former Spokesman for Newt Gingrich): As they did play out last time, it hurt the Republican Party.

LIASSON: Thats Tony Blankley. Fourteen years ago he was House Speaker Newt Gingrichs spokesman. And when the Republicans forced the government shutdown back then after an impasse with President Bill Clinton, the move backfired and the public punished them. This time its very different says Blankley. Its not the Republican Party blocking highway funds, it's one senator. And Blankley points out Jim Bunning isnt running for reelection this year because his own party didnt want him to.

Mr. BLANKLEY: He was always a difficult character, you know, former great athlete. And not only did he never, you know, represent the leadership, he was usually contrary to it and is cantankerous to boot but it clearly is not a Republican Party position.

LIASSON: But these days the Democrats are happy for any opportunity to score political points against the Republicans no matter how brief. And, by the way, its expected the furloughed workers will be reimbursed for any pay they lost.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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