Sen. Tom Coburn: How 'Dr. No' helps others say 'yes'

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.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-OK, reads in his office between votes near the US Capitol, on March 21, 2013 in Washington, DC. Dr. Coburn assumed office in 1994. He is considered a dealmaker because of his ability to work across party lines.

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?

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.

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.

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."

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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