If you picked Republican Sen. Tom Coburn, move to the head of the class. The plainspoken, sometimes grim physician, nicknamed “Dr. No” by his Senate colleagues for his penchant for holding up seemingly innocuous items, is the answer to all of the above. It’s among the reasons he is routinely assailed by anti-tax lobbyist Grover Norquist, whose Americans for Tax Reform group has recently taken aim at the Muskogee OB-GYN.
And yet, the same Tom Coburn joined with other House Republican conservatives to oust then-Speaker Newt Gingrich for not being conservative enough in 1998. He criticized NBC for showing nudity in an uncensored broadcast of Schindler’s List and temporarily blocked a bill to provide health benefits to the 9/11 first responders.
Walt Whitman once wrote “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” The same might be said of Coburn, originally elected in 1994 as a firebrand in a House full of firebrands, but now increasingly seen by Senate Democrats as someone with whom they can do business. That status may matter more as major decisions on taxes, spending and the national debt loom.
So, how does one reconcile these two figures? Let’s look at four possible theories.
Coburn has ‘evolved’
Coburn, 64, rejects the notion that he’s “gone soft,” as he puts it. The 1994 model Coburn and today’s model are on the same compass, he insisted: limited government that does not impinge on personal freedom.
“It’s the same principles,” he told Oklahoma Gazette. “Look, maybe there’s more practicality to it, but there’s no difference in philosophy.”
But one of Coburn’s relatively new allies, Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, disagrees. A liberal Democrat, Durbin worked with Coburn on the 2010 presidential deficit commission known as Simpson-Bowles, named after its two co-chairs who came up with a plan to shave $4 trillion from the deficit over 10 years, including about $100 billion annually through increased revenues from a reformed tax system.
In other words, higher taxes — verboten among most Republicans.
No one following the commission expected Coburn to be on board. “It’s a good first start,” he said at the time. “We may have to go for some revenues at some point in time.”
Ultimately, Coburn and two other Republican senators agreed with the co-chairs’ plan, although it ultimately did not receive enough votes to push it to a floor vote in Congress.
Later, Coburn worked with another bipartisan group of senators, dubbed the “Group of Six,” that also weighed revenues as part of a deficit solution. Durbin was also part of that group.
“We all evolve, there’s no question about it,” Durbin said. “We respected one another’s positions. I know the problems Republicans have with deficit reduction. Tom knows the problems that Democrats have, and we have tried to find a way to walk through that minefield and come out the other end.”
Out of time
Theory No. 2: There isn’t time to wait for deficit reduction. Coburn’s willingness to look beyond the cutsonly approach supported by House Republicans and consider increasing revenues is because the country is nearing a tipping point on debt that could force drastic changes.
Congressman Tom Cole, R-Moore, attributes Coburn’s seemingly newfound pragmatism to the fiscal situation being much worse than it was in the 1990s.
“He believes, and I think correctly, that if we don’t deal with our fiscal problem, nothing else really matters long-term,” said Cole. “The debt can actually destroy the country. He’s been consistent on that. I think he’s become progressively more sophisticated about how he deals with it.”
Coburn gives some credence to that. He voted for Simpson-Bowles, he said, because it was one way to handle the deficit, if not his preferred one.
“The reality is that there’s never going to be 60 Tom Coburns in the Senate. So I can say what am I trying to accomplish versus what I’m not. Maybe I’m better at working deals than I was before, but the risks to our country of not getting things done is 10 times greater than what it was in 1994.”
D.C. moves toward Coburn
Theory 3: Washington is moving more toward Coburn than he is toward it.
This is his favored explanation. It also partly explains why he considers himself friends with Obama — the two were elected to the Senate in 2004 and went through orientation together — something few other Oklahoma politicians would willingly own up to.
“We’re not in agreement on hardly anything, but the point is: How do you change somebody? Do you change somebody by constantly criticizing them and saying what a lousy person they are, or do you try to change somebody by loving them?” Coburn said.
He pointed to a successful amendment to the recent Senate farm bill, pushed by himself and Durbin, limiting eligibility for subsidized crop insurance for farmers making more than $750,000 annually.
“So the point is: Have I changed, or have I changed other people?” he said. “I would tell you I haven’t changed.”
This is not to say Coburn can’t still sound “edgy,” as he puts it. At a recent event at the conservative Heritage Foundation, he claimed 40 percent of people collecting disability benefits under Social Security, veterans’ programs and the like are not actually disabled.
Asked how he defends such an eye-popping estimate, he noted his office has been working on a report on the disability system for more than two years.
“I’ve actually done the hard work and the oversight to find it. And I’ll defend it and debate it,” Coburn said.
“You can be critical of me for saying it, but the fact is I’m talking from facts and other people are talking from emotion.”
But to Coburn, the real problem in Washington — one he talks about in his new book, The Debt Bomb: A Bold Plan to Stop Washington from Bankrupting America — is more about careerism and lawmakers’ need to stay in office than anything else.
In fact, he said he fears what could happen if the GOP actually wins the White House and Senate and keeps control of the House.
“My biggest worry is Republicans won’t step up to the bar, and if they win, do what’s necessary to put our country on a stable footing. That’s my biggest worry, because that will be the end of the Republican Party. You cannot lie to people and say you get it and then not do anything about it,” he said.
Republicans and Democrats have bungled the deficit so much, Coburn said, he contends there is little difference between the parties.
“Look at what’s happened:
Republican control, Bush president, Obama control, Democrats in control — what’s happened? The government continues to grow, continues to be more inefficient, more ineffective and we get further in debt.
“Things aren’t going to change until America changes who is here.”
Finally, there may be a fourth, and simpler, theory: Tom Coburn in the minority in the Senate may be a different creature than in the majority. Coburn as much as concedes this, saying he spends more time behind the scenes playing defense and trying to stop bad ideas from becoming law than proposing solutions.
That could be important, as the Senate is poised to potentially flip to Republican control if the GOP wins a net three seats.
Coburn, already a member of the tax-writing Finance Committee, is in line to become chairman of a key panel on the Homeland Security & Government Affairs Committee, the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.
“Look, I’m in the minority. I’m in the minority in the Senate,” he said. “We don’t control the agenda. So I’m limited in how I can work. If I was in the majority, you would see a whole lot of different things happen.”