Friday, January 14, 2005

Tom Coburn is ready for the Senate, but is the Senate ready for him?

The former congressman who single-handedly derailed the appropriations process in the House in 1999 kept his pledge to serve only three terms and, in 2001, retired to his obstetrics practice in Muskogee, Okla. He then wrote a book about how Washington turns good people into bad career politicians, but he has returned to the Capitol — only this time as a senator.

“Get ready, Senate,” says former Rep. J.C. Watts, who like Mr. Coburn was an Oklahoma Republican elected as part of the Republican class of 1994.

“I do believe his only special interest is the United States of America. But let me tell you, he will make the Senate an even more interesting body,” Mr. Watts said.

As a crusader for lower taxes, traditional values and controlling spending, Mr. Coburn butted heads with Democrats and fellow Republicans alike during his six years in the House.

Mr. Coburn says he thinks most lawmakers are doing the best job they can, but he hasn’t changed his mind about the politicians in Washington being a problem. And foremost among that problem is thinking only to the next election.

“What needs to happen is there needs to be a long-term thinking component that goes with it,” he said. “We have to ask that question about everything that we’re doing. Right now, we’re critical. How do we handle the $60 trillion of unfunded liabilities on Social Security, and how do we handle the $70 trillion on Medicare?”

He called the Medicare prescription-drug bill that passed in 2003 “the greatest example of political expediency that I’ve seen in a long time.”

“They didn’t fix the right problem. It was done for political purposes,” he said. “It is a dreadful bill. It made problems worse, not better.”

And although most House conservatives were pleased with last year’s omnibus spending bill, which they said showed fiscal restraint, Mr. Coburn said it had “many stinky subsections to it” and deserved “pretty tough criticism.”

He said his greatest legislative achievement during those six years was his efforts on the reauthorization of the Ryan White bill to improve the way AIDS funding was directed.

Even some in his own party were happy to see him retire from the House four years ago. Mr. Watts recalled a meeting of the House Republican Conference he ran in 2000, the last of Mr. Coburn’s career, and the comments of senior Appropriations Committee member Sonny Callahan of Alabama.

“He stands up, he goes to the microphone, and he said, ‘I’ll be glad when we [adjourn] because I’m leasing a private plane and I’m going to put Tom Coburn’s narrow blankety-blank on it, and I’m going to drop Tom right in the middle of Oklahoma,’” Mr. Watts recalled.

Mr. Coburn has been called everything from a true “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” story to a “political Rambo” — and that was just by former Rep. Matt Salmon, an Arizona Republican who also was part of the class of 1994, attended Bible study with Mr. Coburn and fought most of the spending and leadership battles alongside him.

“Tom Coburn is going to be like a political Rambo, and I, for one, am excited about it,” he said.

“Were there times when I was offended by Tom? Yes, absolutely. Did I ever believe he was anything other than what he said he was? Never,” Mr. Salmon said. “Tom can offend. That’s a fact. But I think people in Washington need to be offended.”

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the man whom Mr. Coburn and Mr. Salmon led an effort to oust, said this week he is glad that Mr. Coburn will be in the Senate, where there’s a need for someone to learn and use the full array of legislative tools, much as Democrats have Sen. Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia Democrat.

“Jesse Helms retired, we need Tom Coburn in the United States Senate,” Mr. Gingrich said. “He will be the perfect follow-on to Jesse Helms. He will be the counterpart to Byrd.”

Mr. Coburn brings together both sides of the conservative movement.

In his election, he had the support of fiscal conservative groups such as the Club for Growth and prominent social conservatives such as Focus on the Family’s James Dobson, who said, “You’ve got a man here with strong conservative values. I thank God that he was elected.”

“I happen to agree with the values and the moral principles that now Senator-elect Coburn stands for. He is pro-life, decidedly, he is pro-marriage in the fullest extent of the word, he is in favor of fiscal conservativism and lower taxes for families,” Mr. Dobson said.

Mr. Coburn is not one for introspection. He said the huge amount of press focused on his return doesn’t matter.

“I guess some times I’m good copy and maybe that’s why. To me, that’s not an important issue. The future is what’s important,” he said.

During his campaign last year, he made a series of statements labeled as gaffes by the press and even members of his own party, including describing his race against Democratic Rep. Brad Carson as a choice between good and evil.

He also offended a part of the large American Indian population when he said many of those living on the Cherokee reservation in an area that he represented as a congressman “aren’t Indians.”

Still, he easily defeated Mr. Carson and independent candidate Sheila Bilyeu to win the Senate seat.

Now Mr. Coburn is in his first fight in the Senate. He has vowed to continue delivering babies as a way to keep up his medical practice back home, despite a warning by the Senate Select Committee on Ethics.

But former colleagues said although Mr. Coburn might be outspoken, he is not just looking for a fight.

“The rumors of his extremism are greatly exaggerated, to paraphrase Mark Twain,” said Rep. Ernest Istook, another Oklahoma Republican who served with Mr. Coburn in the House.

“Some people will be surprised by the fact that Tom Coburn is a studious member who studies the issues and picks his fights carefully. I know that’s at odds with some of the media portrayal of him, but I think it’s a more accurate picture of him,” Mr. Istook said. “Tom Coburn’s success is not based on him being stubborn, it’s based on him being hard-working, well-researched and plain-spoken.”

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