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.
Big shoes to fill
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.