Sen. Tom Coburn: How 'Dr. No' helps others say 'yes' (+video)
The Oklahoma Republican, an outsider's outsider, has become an essential player on key issues because if the opposition can cut a deal with Coburn, an unassailable conservative, other conservatives will go along.
When Tom Coburn – the outsider's outsider, scourge of leadership, aka "Dr. No" – arrived in the Senate in 2005, the buzz along the marble corridors was that he just might torch the place. The reasoning went something like this: If his own GOP leaders couldn't control him in the House, how much more damage could he do in the clubby Senate, where individual senators have more power to obstruct?Skip to next paragraph
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In a sense, Mr. Coburn did not disappoint. In the Senate, he continued his storied lone-ranger assaults on "pork" projects, dear to lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and widely viewed as essential "grease" to pass legislation.
But he also defied expectations by becoming one of the rare lawmakers willing to make deals that cut across party lines. For years, the dealmakers in the Senate had been the moderates whose swing votes could tip the outcome in a divided chamber. Over time, the centrists were defeated or, weary of the gridlock, resigned.
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Coburn, the un-centrist, is reversing the pattern. What makes him an essential player on issues like debt limits, spending, entitlements, taxes, and even gun control is that his conservative credentials are unassailable. Cut a deal with a conservative as firmly fixed as Coburn, and other conservatives have cover to go along.
When Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York needed Republicans to work with a bipartisan Senate group on expanding background checks for gun purchases, he picked Coburn, a strong supporter of gun rights.
Moreover, unlike many members of Congress, Coburn is not intimidated by outside groups threatening to fund a primary challenge if he strays from the party line. He has pledged to step down at the end of his second term in 2016. He claims no loyalty to a political party.
"I've never attended a Republican National Convention, and never will," he says.
Trained as an accountant, Coburn moved into the family optics business, which thrived under his leadership. An illness prompted him to shift course and study medicine. After graduating, he set up a practice in his hometown of Muskogee and delivered some 4,000 babies, before the national health-care debate prompted him to challenge the incumbent in a Democratic district in 1994. He swept into office with the GOP surge that retook the House for the first time in 40 years.
But from his inaugural year, Coburn was a scourge of GOP leaders, whom he viewed as selling out to big spending. In a defining moment, he took to the floor to denounce the "favor factory," after Rep. Bud Shuster, chairman of the Transportation Committee, offered him $15 million for projects in exchange for his vote. Coburn publicly accused him of bribery.