WASHINGTON -- Kentucky Sen. Jim Bunning's absence during the busy first week of the 111th Congress has raised questions about the 77-year-old junior senator's viability as a candidate for re-election in 2010.
So far this month, Bunning, who sits on Senate's Finance, Energy and Natural Resources and Banking committees, missed three cabinet confirmation hearings and a GOP strategy session on President-elect Barack Obama's economic stimulus package. He's also missed critical votes on releasing the second portion of the $700 billion federal bailout on the nation's troubled financial sector -- a measure Bunning has staunchly opposed in the past.
Bunning's congressional staffers attribute his absences to family commitments and declined to discuss exactly where the senator has been for the better part of a month. He did not return a call for comment.
The 2010 election "may be a little more problematic for him," said Donald Gross, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky. "One of the problems he had in the election last time was a perception of whether he was becoming less competent than he was in previous years.
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During the 2004 campaign, Bunning said Democratic rival Daniel Mongiardo looked "like one of Saddam Hussein's sons." Mongiardo, then a state senator from Eastern Kentucky and now Kentucky's lieutenant governor, is an Italian-American. Bunning later apologized for the statement.
That same year he faced a firestorm of criticism for participating in a live candidate debate via satellite from a remote location using a teleprompter. In April 2006, Time magazine called him one of "America's Five Worst Senators" and criticized his "lackluster performance."
However, last year Bunning became a media darling following years of accurately predicting financial turmoil if government agencies kept bailing out privately owned businesses.
The senator is rarely absent from work and missed fewer than 20 votes last year, according to govtrack.us, a Web site that tracks Congress.
However, Bunning's absence this week was noticeable.
Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., a fellow member of the Senate Finance Committee, noted that Bunning was "necessarily absent" but did not elaborate further Wednesday on the Senate floor. And in a week in which Bunning normally would have sounded off about the Treasury Department loaning $1.5 billion to Chrysler Financial in addition to the $17 billion in loans to General Motors and Chrysler, he remained relatively silent.
Bunning has been a staunch critic of bailouts to the financial sector and American automakers.
Still, Bunning has managed to work.
He, along with Kyl, blocked the Finance Committee from moving forward with Treasury secretary nominee Timothy Geithner's confirmation hearing this week.
"In light of the short notices from the committee and the late-breaking news about the tax filings, Senator Bunning didn't feel it's appropriate to rush forward this week," Mike Reynard, Bunning's spokesman, said earlier this week. "He wanted more time to review all the information, especially in light of the fact that Geithner is nominated to be the top person dealing with these types of issues."
If he returns to work next week, Bunning, like many Republican senators, likely will have pointed questions for Geithner about his tax missteps, involvement with the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, connection to the sale of Bear Stearns and the bailout of AIG -- institutions Bunning faults for the current economic meltdown.
Bunning has his work cut out for him, Gross said.
"The whole use of the teleprompter in the debate and the impression of him not being in control of all his faculties -- whether it's fair or not, it could re-ignite rumors," he said. "He's going to have to start showing up and be an active member of the Senate."
Bunning is expected to attend the Kentucky Society's Bluegrass Ball in Washington on Monday night.