- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 17, 2014

It takes a certain kind of senator to single-handedly block a bill that supporters say would save veterans from committing suicide.

But that’s exactly what Sen. Tom Coburn did last week, facing down withering pressure from veterans groups and insinuations from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid that he will have the blood of veterans on his hands because he’s refusing to let the bill through.

The Oklahoma Republican also held up an energy conservation bill, released a road map for reforming the Social Security disability system, tried to undo one of Mr. Reid’s nuclear option-fueled rules changes and battled with Mr. Reid to try to pass a legacy-building transparency bill that would have forced the executive branch to produce a list of all its programs — all part of one of the busiest weeks any departing senator has ever had.

He cast his final vote as a senator Tuesday night, and was the first to flee the chamber floor, returning to the citizen part of “citizen legislator.” By Wednesday afternoon he was back in Oklahoma, driving to his home in Muskogee.

His next challenge as an ex-senator: pushing for a balanced budget amendment through an Article V convention — a method of amending the Constitution through a call of the states, which has the benefit of going around the entrenched interests in Congress.

Mr. Coburn spent his career in Washington trying to tame those same Capitol Hill forces, and in a telephone interview with The Washington Times he looked back on 10 years of battling earmarks, probing federal spending and trying to make colleagues think harder about the bills they were passing.


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The 66-year-old came to Washington as part of the GOP wave election of 1994, vowing to serve only three terms in the House. He fulfilled that vow, along the way gaining a reputation as an innovative lawmaker with a deep knowledge of the rules, even inventing a House version of the Senate’s filibuster.

He went back home to his medical practice in 2001 but ran for the Senate in 2004, again imposing a two-term limit on himself. Battling cancer, he announced earlier this year he would retire two years early.

The press called Mr. Coburn’s arrival in the Senate 10 years ago a test, both for him and for the staid chamber, where individualism is not always rewarded.

At the time Mr. Coburn, in an interview with The Washington Times, demurred when asked what his election would mean for the Senate.

A decade later, however, in his farewell speech last week, Mr. Coburn made the case for individualism.

“The magic number in the Senate is not 60, the number of senators needed to end debate, and it is not 51, a majority. The most important number in the Senate is one — one senator,” he told several dozen of his colleagues who had come to the floor to hear him speak. “The Senate has a set of rules that gives each individual member the power needed to advance, change or stop legislation.”

He also read his colleagues the oath of office they take, in which they pledge to defend the Constitution. He urged them to pay attention: “Your state isn’t mentioned one time in that oath. Your whole goal is to protect the United States of America, its Constitution and its liberties. It is not to provide benefits to your state.”

One longtime floor attendant said he’d never seen a farewell like it, as Mr. Coburn’s colleagues showered him with praise. Sen. James M. Inhofe, his seatmate from Oklahoma, said he’d “discovered” Mr. Coburn, “a conservative doctor from Muskogee” whom he convinced to run for Congress. Sen. Johnny Isakson, Georgia Republican, said he was printing out Mr. Coburn’s farewell speech to give to his grandchildren this Christmas as required reading about American democracy. Sen. Daniel Coats said he wished he could be Mr. Coburn.

Tom exhibits the conviction that I wish I had more of. Tom exhibits the commitment I wish I had more of, and he exhibits the courage I wish I had more of,” the Indiana Republican said. “I feel like God has given a gift to the Senate, and certainly a gift to me, by simply saying take a look at Tom Coburn.”

As he waited to cast his final vote as a senator on Tuesday, Mr. Coburn stood in the well of the chamber and joked with colleagues about his treatments for cancer (“All the dark hair’s gone”) and accepted gentle ribbing from colleagues over his final blockades.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, came over to shake his hand, even though Mr. Coburn had just single-handedly blocked a bill to extend the federal Terrorism Risk Insurance program into next year. Without the extension, the program expires on Dec. 31, leaving businesses to complain they’ll have a tougher time starting major projects without the federal backing.

“Sorry, Chuck, couldn’t do it,” Mr. Coburn told him.

Oversight

Mr. Coburn named several people he said he expects to continue his legacy of oversight: Sen. Bob Corker, the Tennessee Republican who will become chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, with power to investigate the State Department, and two incoming Senate freshmen, Sen.-elect Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Rep. James Lankford, who won the special election to fill Mr. Coburn’s seat.

While Mr. Coburn’s Wastebook, an annual lampooning of federal spending decisions, gets the most credit, his most influential report may be an investigation into Social Security disability fraud.

That report, which he worked on with Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat, when Mr. Levin was the chairman and Mr. Coburn the ranking Republican on the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, exposed a fraud ring in West Virginia, charging that a high-profile lawyer shepherded cases to a specific administrative law judge, who approved disability applications based on bogus findings by doctors who were in on the scheme.

Mr. Coburn said that investigation has born fruit within the disability system.

“The approval rates have gone down; the fraud’s gone down,” he said.

Mr. Levin, who also is retiring this year, heaped praise on his colleague, even though holding up Mr. Levin’s final defense policy bill was part of Mr. Coburn’s last stand.

“He’s a fighter. He’s a man of tremendous integrity. I consider ourselves close. As a fact, not just friends, but I consider ourselves close,” Mr. Levin said. “He’s very helpful and constructive. I just hope he’s very successful in his fight against cancer. He’s a very straight shooter.”

Coburn vs. Reid

Mr. Coburn said he divides his years in Washington into two eras: “the one before Harry Reid ruined it, and the one since — the last six years,” when Mr. Reid was majority leader and clamped down on senators’ ability to offer amendments and force debate on the big issues of the day.

Mr. Reid returns the criticism back at Mr. Coburn, including insinuating this week that veterans could die while Mr. Coburn blocked the Clay Hunt Veteran Suicide bill.

That legislation would have the Department of Veterans Affairs study the best practices for averting suicides, organize nonprofits on the issue and push the agency to pay tuition assistance for psychiatrists who agreed to serve in VA hospitals.

Mr. Reid said 22 veterans commit suicide every day, and said suicide was a personal issue for him. “My father committed suicide,” the Nevada Democrat said. “I know firsthand of the heartbreak caused by the needless, preventable death of a loved one.”

The bill had bipartisan support, but Mr. Coburn said the VA already had all of the powers in the bill, given it just a few months ago by Congress. He also balked at a potential price tag of $22 million for what he saw as duplicative programs.

“Here we have a bill that people want to pass, and I understand the pain and why you’d want to honor a soldier that took his own life,” Mr. Coburn said. “But we’re going to spend more money and not hold the VA accountable? I can’t do that.”

Instead he challenged, by name, the top Republican and Democrat on the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs to have a hearing a week to force the VA to be accountable on the issue

Even before the suicide bill fight, Mr. Reid had called Mr. Coburn “a permanent wrecking crew” and blasted him for a yearslong blockade on passing a bipartisan set of land deals, including dozens of new National Park site designations. Mr. Coburn argues members of Congress are too interested in creating new sites of dubious value rather than the upkeep of existing magnificent parks.

The land deals finally passed this month, but only after Mr. Reid and his allies attached them to the defense policy bill, making it impossible to strip the deals out or to defeat them.

For his part, Mr. Coburn won about half of his year-end fights. He blocked the Terrorism Risk Insurance bill, the veterans suicide bill and a smaller bill to push federal buildings to conserve energy. But he failed to halt the lands bill and fell short in his bid to pass his own transparency bill, which would require the administration to release a list of all of its programs.

Mr. Coburn said it was the next step after his earlier legislation to create a database of federal spending, USASpending.gov, which has become a key tool for those looking to see what the government budgets.

Mr. Reid objected to the transparency bill, saying the White House didn’t like it, and neither did he.

Mr. Coburn said the bill will pass next year, when he is gone and Mr. Reid is no longer the majority leader.

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