Coburn’s de­par­ture from Se­nate leaves over­sized shoes to fill

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY STEPHEN DINAN

To ap­pre­ci­ate the hole that Sen. Tom Coburn’s loom­ing re­tire­ment leaves in the Se­nate, look at the re­ac­tions of his fel­low Repub­li­cans last week af­ter he made the an­nounce­ment.

Se­nate Mi­nor­ity Leader Mitch McCon­nell of Ken­tucky called his Ok­la­homa col­league “a leg­end in his own time.” Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the sec­ond-rank­ing Repub­li­can in the cham­ber, called him the ul­ti­mate “de­fender of the Amer­i­can tax­payer.” Sen. John McCain of Ari­zona, no stranger to back­bone, called Mr. Coburn “un­shak­able” in his faith in Amer­ica.

“Tom Coburn has never played any po­lit­i­cal games in his life,” said Rep. Tom Cole, a fel­low Ok­la­homa Repub­li­can who was a po­lit­i­cal con­sul­tant to Mr. Coburn’s first cam­paign and now is a col­league serv­ing across the Capi­tol in the House. “He speaks di­rectly, he con­fronts hypocrisy and he’s just not afraid to en­gage in the de­bate.”

Ac­co­lades nor­mally re­served for law­mak­ers who have served a half-cen­tury or more in Wash­ing­ton poured out for Mr. Coburn, who an­nounced he will leave the Se­nate at the end of this year af­ter 10 years in the cham­ber. Po­lit­i­cal al­lies and op­po­nents talked about his friend­ship and his un­bend­ing prin­ci­ples.

Mem­bers be­gan to think about how to fill the shoes of the Se­nate’s most pro­lific leg­is­la­tor.

Dur­ing his nine years in the Se­nate, Mr. Coburn has in­tro­duced more amend­ments than any other law­maker, av­er­ag­ing more than 100 a year. Al­most all of them were aimed at get­ting a bet­ter deal for tax­pay­ers.

It’s also telling that Pres­i­dent Obama’s big­gest leg­isla­tive ac­com­plish­ment dur­ing his four years in the Se­nate was as co-spon­sor to one of Mr. Coburn’s bills — a mea­sure to im­pose trans­parency on ear­marks, which was signed into law by Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush.

“Even though we haven’t al­ways agreed po­lit­i­cally, we’ve found ways to work to­gether — to make gov­ern­ment more trans­par­ent, cut down on ear­marks, and fight to re­duce waste­ful spend­ing and make our tax sys­tem fairer,” Mr. Obama said in a state­ment Fri­day as news of Mr. Coburn’s de­ci­sion cir­cu­lated through a near-empty Wash­ing­ton.

Mr. Coburn has been bat­tling can­cer and was sched­uled to have key tests next month. But in a state­ment, he said he de­cided it was time to shift his fo­cus to his fam­ily, so he will forgo the fi­nal two years of his sec­ond term.

“As a cit­i­zen, I am now con­vinced that I can best serve my own chil­dren and grand­chil­dren by shift­ing my fo­cus else­where. In the mean­time, I look for­ward to fin­ish­ing this year strong,” he said.

Law­mak­ers al­ready had been talk­ing pri­vately about how to fill the hole he would leave — and ac­knowl­edg­ing it would be dif­fi­cult.

Mr. Coburn’s work is leg­endary in Wash­ing­ton. Fed­eral agen­cies dread end­ing up in his an­nual “Waste­book,” know­ing they would re­ceive a flood of in­quiries from re­porters de­mand­ing to know just how tax­pay­ers’ money was be­ing spent.

Among his more fa­mous ex­poses were the Na­tional Sci­ence Foun­da­tion’s study that in­volved putting shrimp on tread­mills and a man who col­lected So­cial Se­cu­rity dis­abil­ity pay­ments while liv­ing as an “adult baby.”

Mr. Coburn has not spared his col­leagues — or even his home state of Ok­la­homa — from his bud­get scalpel.

He reg­u­larly blasts fel­low law­mak­ers for ap­prov­ing bills that added to the deficit, bor­row­ing money from the fu­ture with­out try­ing to make the tough de­ci­sions now.

“The Amer­i­can tax­payer has never had a bet­ter friend than Tom Coburn,” said Sen. John Thune, a South Dakota Repub­li­can who was elected to the Se­nate with Mr. Coburn in 2004. “Tom has been a courageous and too of­ten lonely voice for fis­cal re­spon­si­bil­ity and lim­ited gov­ern­ment. In word and ac­tion, he chal­lenges us ev­ery day to be bet­ter se­na­tors.”

Mr. Coburn’s fights with tax-cut ad­vo­cate Grover Norquist have been bru­tal, and more re­cently he was one of the early op­po­nents of the strat­egy of Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Repub­li­can, to try to tie fund­ing of the gov­ern­ment last year to de­mands for de­fund­ing all of Oba­macare. Mr. Coburn said Oba­macare would sur­vive even if the gov­ern­ment is shut down.

One sym­bol of the Ok­la­homan’s in­flu­ence was how many other law­mak­ers watched how he voted on the Wall Street bailout of 2008. Mr. Coburn’s sup­port, and his ar­gu­ments in fa­vor of it, did sway oth­ers.

“He’s re­li­able with­out be­ing en­tirely pre­dictable,” Mr. Cole said. “That’s a valu­able trait and it shows he’s al­ways think­ing.”


Ac­co­lades nor­mally re­served for law­mak­ers who have served a half-cen­tury or more in Wash­ing­ton poured out for Sen. Tom Coburn, who an­nounced he will leave the Se­nate at the end of this year af­ter 10 years in the cham­ber.

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