When a group of reporters tried to ask U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) yesterday about his efforts to block emergency legislation extending unemployment and health insurance benefits to about a million jobless Americans, he responded by flashing them his middle finger.

The gesture of contempt seems to pretty much capture Bunning's attitude toward the unemployed, whose benefits expired on Sunday due to the Senator's obstruction. The bill he's blocking also would have extended money for transportation projects, with his actions resulting in the furlough of some 2,000 federal workers.

The reason for Bunning's actions? He says he wants the legislation paid for up front, the Louisville Courier-Journal reports:
"Over three years under Democratic Congresses, Bunning said, "we have run up $5 trillion in debt. There has to be a time to stop that."
Bunning's decision to draw the line on this of all measures have been criticized by everyone from White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, who called it "fundamentally not fair," to Kentucky's other Senator, Bunning's fellow conservative Mitch McConnell (R), who supports extending the benefits and thinks any controversy over it should have been resolved weeks ago.

Bunning is also facing a firestorm of outrage back home, his offices inundated with angry phone calls and even bomb threats. But how much impact that public outpouring will have is unclear, since Bunning announced last summer that he wouldn't run for re-election this year, citing difficulty raising money.

During his long stint in Washington, first as a member of the House of Representatives from 1986 to 1998 and then in the Senate, Bunning -- a former Major League Baseball pitcher -- has distinguished himself as an unusually nasty lawmaker. Former President Bill Clinton once said Bunning was so mean-spirited that "he just sent shivers up my spine."

Some other lowlights from Bunning's time in Washington:

* While running for re-election in 2004, Bunning said his Democratic opponent -- state Sen. Daniel Mongiardo, an Italian-American -- looked "like one of Saddam Hussein's sons" and "even dresses like them, too."

* During that same election, Bunning agreed to only one debate with Mongiardo, and imposed unusual rules: It couldn't be live, couldn't take place in the evening, no audience could be present, and Mongiardo couldn't use any of the audio or video in campaign ads. But after Mongiardo agreed to the unusual terms, Bunning at the last minute claimed falsely that he was needed in Washington, insisted he debate from the Republican National Headquarters studio -- and refused to allow a member of the press to be present to monitor whether he was getting help with his answers. Bunning's strange behavior led to widespread speculation that he might be suffering from some sort of dementia.

* That same year, Bunning began traveling around Kentucky with a special police escort at taxpayer expense, alleging he needed it because of the threat from Al-Qaeda. As he ominously told a Paducah TV station, "There may be strangers among us."

* Speaking of strangers among us, Bunning has taken a hard-line stance on undocumented immigrants, opposing immigration reform and "amnesty in any shape, size or form."

* Following his induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1996, Bunning set up a charitable foundation. In 2008, the Lexington Herald-Leader reported that the biggest recipient of the foundation's largess has been ... Bunning. Charity watchdogs raised questions about the operation at the time, and last week Salon columnist Joe Conason renewed calls for Bunning to close it down.

* In February 2009, while speaking at a local Republican Party's Lincoln Day Dinner, Bunning predicted Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg would probably be dead from pancreatic cancer within nine months. After his remarks were widely condemned, Bunning apologized in a press release that misspelled Ginsburg's name.

* On Christmas Eve 2009, Bunning was the only Senator to miss the historic vote on the health care reform bill. That month in total, he missed almost half of all Senate floor votes -- more than those missed even by 92-year-old Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), who is in poor physical health and uses a wheelchair.

* Late last month, when criticized by a fellow Senator for holding up the extension of unemployment benefits, Bunning responded from the back of the Senate chamber, "Tough shit." During the debate he also blamed Democrats for forcing him to miss the Kentucky-South Carolina basketball game.

* As he was getting on an elevator in the Capitol yesterday, Bunning was asked by a producer with ABC News why he was blocking the jobless benefits. The producer tried to board the elevator with him to continue talking, but the Senator blocked his way. "Excuse me!" Bunning said. "This is a Senators-only elevator!"