A Bigger Blunder Than Jim Bunning's Filibuster

His move to block relief for the jobless and Barbara Mikulski’s response exposed the dangers of overreaching on both sides of the aisle.

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We just saw a big man take a big stance in Congress on the issue of spending--so big that for days he was willing to single-handedly delay a vote to extend health and unemployment benefits for thousands of jobless Americans. Republican Sen. Jim Bunning's position that Congress should find other ways to pay for extending unemployment benefits more than borrowing from debtor nations was commendable. However, the big Hall of Fame pitcher from Kentucky had a bigger problem: His stand on principle paled in comparison to the woes that Kentuckians and Americans face daily as this "jobless recovery" continues.

That led to a perception problem: In the midst of momentum gains by the GOP, Bunning's position on funding unemployment benefits extensions came across not as principled fiscal stewardship, but as a grandstanding move by an obstructionist who was blocking a much-needed lifeline.

The Bunning filibuster highlighted the congressional partisan gridlock that many Americans abhor these days. Further, it symbolizes (fairly or not) the "Party of No" image that Democrats and liberals apply to Republicans on Capitol Hill. This example of a conservative ideologue taking a rigid position (even against the advice of fellow Republicans) at the risk of halting necessary stop-gap payments to unemployed Americans may provide some voters the motivation to recast Republicans as the party of failed and disconnected leadership in November, even as Congress' approval ratings continue to plummet on the Harry Reid/Nancy Pelosi watch.

The perception that Republicans will continue to obstruct the Congress and the White House without considering the urgency of America's challenges during the Great Recession is a tough image to break, even if the logic behind the conservative proposals have merit.

Yet, if the right-hander from Kentucky took a big risk with his filibuster, a woman from Maryland made a monumental statement in a short speech from the Senate floor. The comments by Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., Tuesday evening did not get much attention. As expected, Mikulski was against the filibuster, but she took a huge leap during her speech's transition from social reality on unemployment to constitutional philosophy.

Just as the Bunning filibuster stands as the image of Republican obstructionism to Democrats, Mikulski's stance on filibusters now symbolizes (fairly or otherwise) the "socialist agenda" warning and the "need to reclaim America" messaging that Republicans and conservatives apply to Democrats on Capitol Hill.

The suggestion by the senator from Maryland is worrisome: As annoying as the bipartisan skirmishing has been on Capitol Hill for some time now, we should be wary of making fundamental changes to the U.S. Constitution or in skirting its legal requirements of governance. The same holds true for universal health care or government mandates, the invasion of Americans' privacy through the expansion of presidential power post-Sept. 11, "simple majority" requirements in the Senate to pass spending bills, and mandates for or against gay marriage. Conservatives and liberals may debate these issues vigorously, but one position must be clear--even if many of these issues are of vital importance, very few are important enough to fundamentally alter the Constitution just to satisfy the trends of the day.

Lenny McAllister is a syndicated political commentator and the author of the book, Diary of a Mad Black PYC (Proud Young Conservative). He is featured regularly on outlets including CNN, Fox News and XM Radio. Follow him on Twitter.

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