Tom Coburn: The Senate-Stalling Republican No One Hates
Cruz and Coburn have both blocked bills and slowed adjournment. So why does one have so many enemies and the other so few?
If Ted Cruz is the Grinch of the Senate, Tom Coburn is the Scrooge.
While the Texas firebrand nearly brought the government to a standstill over President Obama's immigration order, his spending-averse Oklahoma colleague did plenty on his own to make lame-duck life difficult in the upper chamber.
Coburn, who is retiring at the end of this term, filibustered a must-pass defense bill, holding up its passage until late Friday—and preventing the Senate from taking up any of its other year-end legislation in the meantime. He also put holds on a pair of end-of-term bills, a terrorism risk insurance program and a measure to prevent veteran suicides, both due to spending concerns.
But while Cruz has made headlines and drawn plenty of ire from his colleagues, Coburn has avoided such above-the-fold dramatics—and he's drawing warm praise from all over Capitol Hill as his Senate tenure draws to a close.
That contrast was perhaps best illustrated by Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee. Late Saturday, he sent out a release excoriating Cruz's constitutionality concerns about Obama's immigration order as "not only inaccurate but irresponsible." In another shot at Cruz, he added, "I value the oath I took to support and defend the Constitution too much to exploit it for political expediency."
Asked about Coburn's bill-blocking, however, Corker lavished praise. "I think Tom needs to do whatever Tom feels is right. He's only got a little time left, and whatever grit and spunk he has left, I think he needs to continue on with it," he said. "Tom needs to be Tom as long as Tom is here. We love him."
Even when senators take issue with his positions, it rarely results in personal attacks or fights that play out in public. Much of that is due to Coburn's consistency; his longtime opposition to spending he deems wasteful has earned him the moniker "Dr. No." Colleagues expect Coburn to fight big government, and they believe his actions are rooted in principle, not the pursuit of headlines or fundraising.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte—one of several Republicans who fumed at Cruz for his tactics Saturday—was seen a day earlier in animated discussion with Coburn as he went to the Senate floor, pressing him to let the veteran suicide legislation through. Asked about the exchange, she said the talk had provided the opportunity for further discussion with Coburn's staff. "Tom has put more holds on legislation than anyone," she said. "His concerns are always legitimate, and I have a lot of respect for him.... We're going to miss him here, so this is something that is not unusual for him and we all respect."
The two conservatives have clashed publicly over tactics before. Coburn strongly criticized Cruz's push for a government shutdown in 2013, and slammed Cruz's efforts to defund Obamacare as "intellectually dishonest." Cruz's chief of staff, in turn, once accused Coburn of serving in the "surrender caucus."
While colleagues have come to give Coburn the benefit of the doubt when it comes to his legislative motivations, many have gained respect for him on a personal level as well. The Republican famously grew close to Obama during his time as an Illinois senator, and he still prays for the president every night. Obama issued a warm statement of praise to mark Coburn's retirement.
In his send-off address to Coburn, Sen. Thomas Carper compared his relationship with his departing colleague to that of an old married couple. Carper has chaired the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs with Coburn as ranking member, and he said their willingness to "communicate and compromise" has made the partnership work.
And Coburn, while often gruff in the halls of Congress, is loved by those who work for him.
While some, like Rachel Maddow, have cried foul at Coburn's lame-duck actions, the reaction from his fellow senators has been less visceral. "[Senators] probably do think that Sen. Coburn has been consistent and this is a matter of principle for him," said Sen. Mark Pryor. "He's done that quite a bit over the years."
Of course, there may be another reason legislators have been slow to express outrage. "It may be that Sen. Coburn is leaving, and people don't want to say anything about him as he's leaving," Pryor said. Pryor, who was defeated in the November elections, will also not be returning to Washington.
Another departing senator, spending a longer-than-expected final term in Washington, was less willing to cut Coburn slack. Sen. Tom Harkin gave a curt "no" when asked to explain the different reactions the Cruz and Coburn's procedural blocks. "This is childish," he said Saturday, garbed in a red vest and green tie, and no doubt eager to get home to Iowa for the holidays.
Coburn was not present for Saturday night's dramatics, as a government-funding bill was passed despite opposition from conservatives and liberals, and Cruz's attempts to use the bill to fight Obama's immigration order drew fire from within the Republican ranks. In an email, Coburn said he had to be home to see his doctor. He has been fighting a recurrence of prostate cancer.
It's unclear if Coburn will return Monday, when several of the bills he opposes may come before the Senate. If he does, his colleagues know what to expect—an any-means-necessary effort to keep them from passing.
This article appears in the December 15, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.