Senator Coburn: tough critic of pork

Call it a clash of world views.

Sen. Robert Byrd (D) is a Senate lifer committed to doing all he can to help his state. Sen. Tom Coburn (R) of Oklahoma is a freshman, who ran on term limits and limited government.

Both senators are on a collision course over what could be the only reform item in play in the 109th Congress: earmarks.

Senator Coburn didn't get the memo about freshmen senators not getting between a senior senator and his earmarks. Coburn has held 43 oversight hearings on earmarks, which he calls "the "gateway drug to spending addiction."

"It is unconscionable for Congress to avoid the hard work of making choices about priorities," he says. "Any money that is going to earmarks is money that is not going to protect our troops."

He's just getting started. Coburn's amendment to the FY 2007 Defense Appropriations bill mandating an analysis of the total cost and effectiveness of defense earmarks for the goals of the Department of Defense (DOD) passed the Senate 96 to 1, with Senator Byrd the lone dissenter.

Another amendment requires the DOD to post the reports for Appropriations Committees on its website. The majority of defense earmarks appear in the report, rather than formal legislation.

But it's not clear that any of these amendments would survive a conference with the House. The Senate left for August recess with 11 of their 12 must-pass spending bills still to be completed. Fiscal hawks from both parties worry that the backlog may force a giant omnibus bill – typically a magnet for earmarks.

Actually, they're bookends on earmarks. Coburn received a 96 percent rating from the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste last month: "taxpayer hero." Byrd got a 9 percent "hostile" rating.

"I'm voting for my grandchildren," Coburn says. "We must remember that as senators we're not just the senator from Oklahoma but a US senator."

Other senators have hurled jeremiads on earmarks, but no one in at least 25 years, until Coburn, has done battle with a colleague over them. Members don't want their own plans rolled by a colleague still miffed over an earmark slight.

In November, Coburn set off a firefight with former Appropriations Chairman Ted Stevens of Alaska when he demanded a vote over two bridges that came to be known as the "bridges to nowhere." In February, Coburn threatened to "force hundreds or, if necessary, thousands of votes" to strike individual earmarks from spending bills. He's joined in the House by Rep. Jeff Flake (R) of Arizona. But a senator has more power to obstruct and force votes than an individual representative. Coburn has signaled he will not flinch at grinding the Senate to a halt.

Neither will Byrd. He has said: "What helps West Virginia helps the nation."

Many of his constituents agree. Just back of the pool tables at the Troubadour Restaurant in Berkeley Springs, which doubles as the West Virginia Country Music Hall of Fame, there's a corner dedicated to Sen. Robert C. Byrd. "He was quite a good fiddle player, of all things," muses owner Jim McCoy, a former disc jockey who says that he gave country legend Patsy Kline her first air time. Byrd was also a virtuoso at bringing federal tax dollars back to the state.

"He got us about everything he could get," Mr. McCoy adds.

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

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