- The Washington Times - Monday, June 27, 2005

MUSKOGEE, Okla. (AP) — It’s a Monday morning, and by 7:30 a.m., Tom Coburn already has put 2 hours on the job as a doctor.

He’s made the rounds at the hospital. Now, expectant mothers and an elderly man with hardening of the arteries await exams at his clinic in a rambling strip mall. Lab reports sit a foot high in his office chair.

As he strides down the hallway, Mr. Coburn glances at his watch. If he doesn’t leave his medical office in his northeastern Oklahoma hometown by 9 a.m., he could miss the flight to his Senate office in Washington.

The doctor is running out of time — in more ways than one.

The Senate Select Committee on Ethics has given Mr. Coburn until Sept. 30 to wind down his family and obstetrics practice after finding that it violates Senate rules that limit outside compensation.

The freshman Republican plans to comply. But he also wants to change the rule that he says “creates a class of kings” contrary to the “citizen legislators” that the Founding Fathers wanted.

“I’m immersed in people’s lives in a way most senators aren’t,” Mr. Coburn says.

Mr. Coburn delivered 480 babies while he was a congressman from 1995 to 2001. The House allowed him to practice medicine as long as he took in only enough payment to cover his roughly $200,000 in costs for staff and malpractice insurance.

He wants a similar waiver from the Senate. But rules there prohibit senators who are physicians and lawyers from receiving any compensation from a medical or law practice.

Changing those rules could put the Senate on a slippery slope toward undermining its credibility, said Larry Noble, executive director of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

“The rules are meant to stop the appearance and reality of a conflict of interest that may exist if you have outside employment,” Mr. Noble said.

In a letter to Mr. Coburn, the committee quoted the late Sen. Strom Thurmond, who said when the rule was created in 1977, “The first obligation of a professional is to his client; the first obligation of a senator to his constituency. Mr. President, we cannot serve two masters.”

Carlisa Rogers, 31, the mother of three, said she thinks Mr. Coburn can.

Nine months ago, Mr. Coburn delivered her twins by Caesarean section at 1:30 a.m., and appeared later the same day at a candidate forum in his contentious Senate race against former Democratic Rep. Brad Carson.

“He came in early at 6 a.m. or 7 a.m. to make rounds,” Mrs. Rogers recalls. “I’m sure he went into that day with no sleep.”

Mr. Coburn specializes in high-risk pregnancies. He says the patients who come to him, many of whom are American Indians or on Medicaid, are not seeking to buy his influence.

“There is no conflict of interest here,” he says.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, the only other physician in the Senate, sometimes volunteers his surgical services, including trips to developing countries. Mr. Frist, however, has not sought compensation.

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