WASHINGTON — Outgoing U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., a Hall of Fame pitcher whose grit and temper on the baseball diamond and the Senate floor earned him a reputation as a stubborn individualist, bid adieu to colleagues on Thursday.
"I have been booed by 60,000 fans at Yankee Stadium standing alone at the pitcher's mound, so I have never really cared if I stood alone here in Congress as long as I stood by my beliefs and my values," Bunning said on the Senate floor. "I have also thought that being able to throw a curveball never was a bad skill for a politician to have."
Bunning's farewell speech was punctuated with references to such "curveballs" over the course of his 24-year congressional career as when he disagreed with Democratic leaders and, at times, leaders in his own Republican Party on such issues as bailouts for the banking industry. Earlier this year, he singlehandedly blocked legislation designed to keep alive a host of programs due to expire: extending unemployment benefits, providing health insurance premium help for laid-off federal workers, and making payments on road and transit bills. Bunning, a fiscal conservative, objected because Congress didn't say how it would pay for the $10 billion bill. He eventually acquiesced and the legislation passed.
Bunning's decision not to seek re-election in the face of mounting pressure to step aside from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a fellow Kentuckian, and other GOP leaders in many ways helped clear the way for Sen.-elect Rand Paul's succession to the office.
McConnell, who will pay tribute to Bunning on the Senate floor next week, said Thursday, "Jim is a Hall of Famer in life and a Hall of Famer in politics. The Commonwealth of Kentucky is a far better place because of his service."
In a speech Thursday that, at times, was every bit as fiery and defiant as Bunning's congressional tenure, the veteran lawmaker said he was most proud of helping pass legislation that repealed the earnings limit on older Americans under the Social Security system. He is also proud of having helped write the last reauthorization of the National Flood Insurance Program just in time for the 2004 and 2005 hurricane season, including Hurricane Katrina.
His work pushing for cleanup efforts at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant helped lead to legislation that moved the entire program over to the Department of Labor, in an effort to speed up and streamline compensation for sick nuclear workers.
Among his biggest disappointments was the inability to more fully reform Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, passage of the health care reform law and bailouts for the financial industry.
"For many years I was a lonely critic of the Federal Reserve," Bunning said. "Practically no one questioned Alan Greenspan, despite his policies causing two recessions and two asset bubbles."
For years, Bunning led a one-man crusade again the Fed's practices, which he worried would lead to a lending crisis, and was deeply critical of its chairmen, Greenspan and later Ben Bernanke.
"I did not run for public office for fame or public acclaim. When I cast my votes, I thought about how they would affect my grandchildren and the next generation of Kentuckians, not where the political wind at the time was blowing," Bunning said.
Those winds often became gales.
Last year, he cursed at reporters during a telephone press call and refused to release the results of an internal political poll. The results are "none of your goddamn business," he said.
That same year, he said U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was being treated for pancreatic cancer, would be dead by year's end. He apologized for the statement.
During the 2004 campaign, Bunning said that Democratic challenger Daniel Mongiardo, then a state senator and now Kentucky's lieutenant governor, looked "like one of Saddam Hussein's sons." Mongiardo is an Italian-American. Bunning later apologized for the statement.
In a rare public show of a softer side, Bunning grew emotional when he spoke of his nine children, 40 grandchildren and wife, Mary, who he said "is my lighthouse that always shined a light during the good and bad times of public service."