No back­ing down on spending Coburn free to ruf­fle feathers as pop­u­lar­ity not a con­cern

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY KARA ROW­LAND

De­spite be­ing in the mi­nor­ity in a Se­nate that is more tilted to Democrats than at any time in the past three decades, Sen. Tom Coburn, Ok­la­homa Repub­li­can, has gone head to head with Ma­jor­ity Leader Harry Reid — and won. His se­cret: He doesn’t care.

Mr. Coburn’s non­cha­lance about his own po­lit­i­cal fu­ture has given him the free­dom to be Capi­tol Hill’s most out­spo­ken fis­cal hawk and guardian of the Con­sti­tu­tion. Most re­cently, his per­sis­tence paid off as he was able to at­tach an amend­ment al­low­ing li­censed firearms in some fed­eral parks to a con­sumer credit card bill two weeks ago.

“I don’t go away. He’s learned that,” Mr. Coburn says of his fre­quent floor bat­tles with Mr. Reid. “Since I don’t care whether I get beat up or not, I’m re­ally danger­ous for him.”

In a cham­ber dom­i­nated by ca­reer politi­cians, Mr. Coburn has not shied away from ruf­fling feathers in his ob­ses­sive pur­suit of shrink­ing the gov­ern­ment. He rails against gov­ern­ment waste with equal vigor be the cul­prits Democrats, Repub­li­cans or both.

That’s be­cause, he warns, the next gen­er­a­tion’s stan­dard of liv­ing hangs in the bal­ance. “We are steal­ing your very fu­ture. It is go­ing away as we speak.”

Four years into his first Se­nate term, the 61-year-old ob­ste­tri­cian and the cham­ber’s onyl prac­tic­ing doc­tor is a self-de­scribed ci­ti­zen leg­is­la­tor who has pledged to serve no more than two terms. He sim­i­larly lim­ited him­self to three terms in the House, where he served from 1995 to 2001.

Mr. Coburn’s stated rea­sons for pub­lic ser­vice are a far cry from the grandiose, boil­er­plate re­sponse one might ex­pect from a mem­ber of Congress.

“I was dis­gusted and wor­ried,” he says flatly. “I think what we have is at risk, and it’s ac­tu­ally much more at risk to­day than it ever has been.”

As a mem­ber of the Repub­li­can Revo­lu­tion’s fresh­man class, he was frus­trated by the House Repub­li­can lead­er­ship’s fail­ure to fol­low through on its Con­tract With Amer­ica, later pen­ning a book about the ex­pe­ri­ence called “Breach of Trust.”

“Too of­ten, the Congress in my life­time has gone in the di­rec­tion of ca­reer pro­tec­tion rather than coun­try pro­tec­tion,” he says. “It’s re­ally a para­dox — the less you want to stay here, the more free you are to do what’s in the best long-term in­ter­est of the coun­try. But the even greater para­dox is the more con­fi­dence you de­velop from your con­stituents be­cause they know your mo­ti­va­tions then are not about you.”

Mr. Coburn, who will an­nounce on June 1 whether he will seek a sec­ond term next year, cites the case of col­league and for­mer Repub­li­can Sen. Arlen Specter of Penn­syl­va­nia, who switched par­ties to avoid an up­hill pri­mary bat­tle.

“The ques­tion is, what’s the true mo­ti­va­tion be­hind the pub­lic ser­vice — is it about the ser­vant, or is it about those served? Only in­di­vid­u­als can ask that in the quiet of their own mind,” he says. “He de­cided be­ing in the Se­nate was more im­por­tant than prin­ci­ples he’d aligned with for 40 years or stay­ing true and loyal to the re­la­tion­ships he had. He chose to win at any cost. Is that about our coun­try and is that about Penn­syl­va­nia, or is that about Arlen Specter?”

As for Pres­i­dent Obama, whom — like Mr. Specter — he de­scribes as a friend, Mr. Coburn says it’s too early to make a mean­ing­ful eval­u­a­tion of his per­for­mance, but of­fers some mixed re­views. Al­though he has voted against ev­ery ma­jor Obama ini­tia­tive thus far, in­clud­ing the pres­i­dent’s $3.6 tril­lion bud­get, Mr. Coburn praised the White House for sug­gest­ing $17 bil­lion in cuts. In con­trast, other Se­nate Repub­li­cans blasted the pro­pos­als as ane­mic.

“At least he had the courage to say, ‘I found $17 bil­lion, let’s get rid of it,’ ” he says.

At the same time, Mr. Coburn slams Mr. Obama’s bud­get as a vi­o­la­tion of the Con­sti­tu­tion’s enu­mer­ated pow­ers. He also says he was dis­ap­pointed by Mr. Obama’s fail­ure to live up to his word on end­ing earmarks, by sign­ing an om­nibus spending bill that con­tained thou­sands of pet projects, which Mr. Coburn de­scribes as an “in­ces­tu­ous, in­sid­i­ous dis­ease.”

“He missed a great op­por­tu­nity,” he says. “Be­ing con­sis­tent with your word and mean­ing what you say means some­thing. It’s pow­er­ful.”

In fact, Mr. Coburn and his col­leagues say it’s con­sis­tency that has en­abled him to main­tain friend­ships with other se­na­tors while be­ing an out­spo­ken critic of spending.

“They may not like what he does, but no­body is more re­spected,” says Sen. John McCain, Ari­zona Repub­li­can, who joins Mr. Coburn in the war on pork. “He’s a man of courage, in­tegrity and more than his share of guts.”

Pulling a copy of the Con­sti­tu­tion out of his coat pocket, Mr. Coburn says it’s his oath that com­pels him to speak out.

“I’m not go­ing to duck away from an is­sue, and here’s the rea­son why — I swore an oath. Oath means some­thing to me,” he says. “I try to make ev­ery vote fit with what this book says.”

Mr. Coburn is re­ly­ing on his med­i­cal back­ground to pre­pare for the loom­ing fight over health care re­form. While nei­ther Mr. Obama nor Democrats in Congress have put out a plan yet, their rhetoric has fo­cused on uni­ver­sal cov­er­age, which he says alone won’t do any­thing to squelch sky­rock­et­ing costs.

“If you don’t ad­dress preven­tion and in­cen­tivize it, you don’t in­cen­tivize well­ness, and you don’t in­cen­tivize chronic-dis­ease man­age­ment, those three things, I don’t care what you do — you’re not go­ing to solve the prob­lems that we have in health care,” says Mr. Coburn, who in­tro­duced leg­is­la­tion on May 20 that he says would over­haul the sys­tem without “cost­ing a penny” by cre­at­ing a true mar­ket in health care.

At the end of the Se­nate work­week, Mr. Coburn rel­ishes re­turn­ing home to Musko­gee, Okla., where he runs his med­i­cal prac­tice ev­ery other Mon­day. He says it keeps him grounded.

“It lev­els me,” says Mr. Coburn, who has de­liv­ered more than 4,000 ba­bies. “It lets me see what the real world’s like. That’s the other prob­lem with Wash­ing­ton. We don’t have a good han­dle on what the real world’s like be­cause we’re in­su­lated from it.”

KATIE FALKEN­BERG/THE WASH­ING­TON TIMES

Sen. Tom Coburn, Ok­la­homa Repub­li­can, says “It’s re­ally a para­dox — the less you want to stay [in Congress], the more free you are to do what’s in the best long-term in­ter­est of the countr y.” As an ob­ste­tri­cian, He is re­ly­ing on his med­i­cal back­ground in prepa­ra­tion for the fight over health care re­form.

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