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.
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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.
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.”
Mr. Coburn had several careers before politics. Trained as an accountant, he helped put his father’s optics company on solid financial footing. He then trained to become a doctor, choosing obstetrics because he wanted to deliver babies. Along the way, he married his childhood sweetheart, a former Miss Oklahoma.
He ran for the House in 1994, winning a seat the GOP hadn’t held for decades, and gave himself a limit of serving three terms.
During those six years, he was involved in a conservative coup to try to oust the House Republican leadership for overspending, and he helped pioneer legislative tactics that stymied his own party leaders, forcing them to bend.
After four years out of Congress, in 2004 he won election to the Senate, again imposing a limit — this time two terms, or 12 years. Each time, he preached the vision of the country’s founders that legislators would be citizens, not career politicians.
Mr. Cole called Mr. Coburn “the political leader of Americans who hate politics. He doesn’t need the adulation or any of those kinds of things — he got involved for all the right reasons.”
“He’s a better person than I am. I think he comes closer to living his values and beliefs than probably anybody I know,” Mr. Cole said. “If you had to say there’s a weakness in Tom, Tom will always do what he thinks the right thing is — he just won’t stop and think it’s wrong. But honestly, he is almost always right.”