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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.

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After keeping a pledge not to serve more than three consecutive terms, Coburn went back to the full-time medical practice and wrote a book, "Breach of Trust: How Washington Turns Outsiders into Insiders," exposing, by name, colleagues who he said had betrayed the GOP Revolution by presiding over a "porkfest."

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That's why Coburn's election to the Senate in 2004 set off alarms across party lines. As expected, he quickly mastered Senate procedure, then took to the floor to force colleagues to defend questionable pork projects – a move viewed as a breach of Senate civility.

But Coburn also developed a staff with a capacity for investigation and oversight. Over time, Coburn Inc. became a clearinghouse for data on how government programs worked, or, as Coburn puts it, "methodically and relentlessly building the case for limited government." His profile took a turn from maverick extremist to statesman in 2005, when he challenged an earmark for the "bridge to nowhere." The $453 million project for two bridges in Alaska was backed by the former chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, who threatened to resign if Coburn won a floor vote to remove the funding. Coburn lost, 82 to 15, but the fight captured public attention. "Bridge to nowhere" became shorthand for a useless government project. Congress later rescinded the earmark.

Coburn stepped up his fight, threatening to force "thousands of votes" to eliminate pork projects. Through it all, he was winning converts. In 2011, the House banned earmarks, and the Senate suspended the practice.

But what has made Coburn a go-to lawmaker for Democrats is the possibility that he can rally conservatives to support a "grand bargain" on debt reduction – the great drama of the second Obama term. In 2011, Coburn stunned many colleagues by beginning an assault on what he called pork spending in the tax code, such as a $6 billion annual subsidy for ethanol blenders.

To Democrats, Coburn's move was a hopeful signal that a critical mass of conservative Republicans might yet be persuaded to accept tax hikes as part of a grand bargain on debt reduction. As a member of President Obama's deficit commission, Coburn backed raising taxes as part of a $4 trillion deficit reduction deal. He's also one of the rare members of Congress who claim a personal relationship with Mr. Obama.

"I talk with him fairly often," says Coburn. "He knows I'm not going to tell him something that I don't believe, and I'm not going to tell him something political. He's kind of an ideologue. So am I. We're just totally opposite."


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