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Bunning and Belushi

The senator who has lost his fastball

On the original Saturday Night Live, John Belushi used to play a slobbering character called The Thing That Wouldn't Leave, so named because of his clueless propensity for staying too long at a party, and refusing all hints and entreaties from his hosts to haul himself off the sofa and hit the road.

Senate Democrats are currently saddled with such a character; I refer, of course, to Roland Burris. But Burris has sucked up so much attention lately that it's easier to forget about the Thing who persists in camping out on the Republican sofa, even as his hapless hosts gnash their teeth and pray that he will go away.

I refer, of course, to GOP senator Jim Bunning of Kentucky, the former baseball pitcher who hurled a perfect game as a Phillie in 1964, but who, in his two terms as a Washington lawmaker, has been pitching way too many screwballs.

Bunning is such an embarrassment, with his verbal miscues and bizarre behavior, that Senate Republican leaders are now working openly to bounce him out of the chamber. They have made it abundantly clear that they don't want him to run for re-election next year - a highly unusual posture, since party leaders normally encourage incumbents to run again. But Bunning, at age 77, is shaking off all the signs and digging in for a third bid. The GOP is so distressed by his intransigence - and so worried that a Bunning defeat next year would help the Democrats win a filibuster-proof 60 seats - that they are actively soliciting another Kentucky Republican to challenge their own senator in a party primary. That's how bad things are with the Thing.

Actually, things got even worse over the weekend, when Bunning declared in a speech that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg will soon be dead. By the end of the summer, in fact.

While making an argument for more conservative judges, Bunning informed his audience that the high court will soon have one less liberal judge. Bunning, who is not a doctor, and who naturally has no access to Ginsberg's private medical records, nevertheless stated that she has "bad cancer. The kind you don't get better from. Even though she was operated on (Feb. 5), usually nine months is the longest that anybody would live after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer."

Meanwhile, Ginsberg was back on the bench yesterday, firing questions at lawyers, as medical experts provided a cautiously optimistic prognosis, noting that her cancer had been caught at an early stage and that it had not spread beyond her pancreas. And Bunning - realizing, perhaps, that it's a tad tacky for a senator to summarily consign a high court judge to her eternal rest - shifted yesterday into mea culpa mode: "I apologize if my comments offended Justice Ginsburg." (If?)

The Ginsberg episode is merely the latest in a long string of embarrassments. That's one big reason why he has barely raised any money for his 2010 re-election bid (a Senate incumbent in Kentucky needs to raise upwards of $20 million; in Bunning's latest filing, he has raised around $175,000). Meanwhile, the Kentucky polls show that he is highly vulnerable - which is no surprise, given the fact that Bunning barely eked out a two-point victory in 2004, on a night when President Bush won Kentucky by 20.

Bunning's behavior is legendary in GOP circles. During his '04 campaign, he said that  Democratic challenger Daniel Mongiardo looked like Saddam Hussein's sons "and even dresses like them, too." (A Bunning spokesman later apologized, while insisting that the remark had generated "a lot of laughs.") Bunning also boosted his security detail, at taxpayer expense, claiming that al Qaeda might be targeting him; indeed, he told a TV crew, "There may be strangers among us." (Senate officials said there were no specific threats against Bunning.) Even in 2007, he insisted that Mongiardo (a doctor by trade) had dispatched campaign workers dressed as doctors to harass him and Mrs. Bunning ("I had little green doctors pounding on my back"), though there was no evidence of it happening.

He has also alienated business leaders and fellow Republicans back home. During the '04 campaign, he told a chamber of commerce luncheon in Louisville that, contrary to all expectations, the city would not be getting a new bridge. This was news to the local Republican congresswoman, Anne Northrup, who had arranged for that bridge to be built with federal funds - and who knew that, in fact, the project had the green light. Northrup had to mollify the shocked business leaders by declaring that the senator was merely "confused," a word that is code for "senile." As for Bunning, he at first denied that he had uttered his inaccuracy - then admitted saying it only after he was informed that his speech had been recorded. (He had also denied the remark about Hussein's sons, until informed that those remarks had been videotaped.)

Bunning also has a habit of being in the wrong place. In October '04, he was supposed to be in Kentucky for the only scheduled Senate campaign debate; instead, he was up in Washington, claiming he was "tied up" with legislative duties (actually, the Senate was not in session). So he participated via satellite, and appeared to be using a teleprompter in violation of the debate rules.

By contrast, when he was supposed to be in Washington last month, for the opening Senate session and the casting of consequential votes, he was somewhere else on vacation (he has never said where). Republican officials were less than thrilled, rightly recognizing that Bunning's decision to go AWOL in a time of crisis could well become grist for Democratic attack ads in Kentucky next year.

So it's no wonder that Washington GOP strategists have been huddling with a respected Republican state senator, mapping the possibility of his challenging Bunning in a primary (while officially denying, naturally, that any such plans are in the works). Most instructive, however, is that posture being taken by Republicans Mitch McConnell (the GOP's Senate leader) and John Cornyn (who chairs the party's 2010 campaign committee). They have met with Bunning, he has told them that he intends to run, and yet they still keep insisting publicly that Bunning has yet to make up his mind. To which Bunning said of Cornyn, "He's either deaf, or he doesn't listen very well."

Cornyn was also recently asked whether Bunning would be the best candidate to hold a seat that the GOP dearly needs next year. Cornyn replied, "I don't know. I think it's really up to Senator Bunning."

Stripping away the politesse, here's the translation: "I wish that freaking slag heap would take a hint, get off the sofa, and hit the road."

But the point is, senators don't feel compelled to take such hints. Once ensconced, they often tend to be independent actors, heedless of the needs of their party. Once ensconced, they are tough to extricate - short of waging a successful, and costly, primary. That's the deal at the moment with Burris and Bunning, this season's winners of the Belushi award.