Coburn Dines Alone as the Senate Buffet Piles on the Pork

By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, May 3, 2006

Tom Coburn is like an imam at a pig roast: He sees pork everywhere, and he doesn't like it.

The Republican senator from Oklahoma has spent the past week trying to remove pet-project "earmarks" that his colleagues have added to an emergency spending bill -- and the earmarks are winning, big time.

Yesterday morning, he was out on the Senate floor demanding to know why the emergency legislation -- for Iraq, Afghanistan and Gulf Coast hurricane recovery -- includes millions of dollars for Hawaiian sugar growers.

He stepped out for a break on a Senate balcony and pointed to the work on the Capitol Visitor Center, which may get another $27 million in emergency spending. "That's another one!" he fumed.

After lunch, he returned to the Senate floor to try to kill earmarks for a defense contractor, a study of shrimp and reef fishery profitability, aircraft that weren't requested by the Pentagon and other items in the groaning, $106.5 billion spending package.

"I thought it would be interesting for us to just spend a minute to think about what a billion is," he proposed. "A billion minutes ago, Jesus was alive . . . A billion days ago, no one walked on Earth on two feet." But, he added, "A billion dollars ago was only eight hours and 20 minutes at the rate we're spending money in the federal government."

The quixotic Coburn, a family doctor by trade and a conservative fire breather by inclination, has no illusions that he'll make a dent in government spending. The earmark-engorged Senate spending bill is $14 billion more than the White House requested and the House passed. So far, Coburn has succeeded in cutting just $15 million of the $2.6 billion he has tried eliminating.

Senators scratch each others' backs: You vote for my earmark, I'll vote for yours.

But the iconoclastic Coburn knows the value of symbolism. (He went through the Capitol metal detector yesterday like an ordinary citizen even though he doesn't have to.) With his 19 amendments to the spending bill, Coburn is trying to embarrass senators so that they think twice before trying audacious earmarks in the future.

"It's all designed to show the absurdity of what's going on," he said during a break in his barrage. And much of it does sound absurd: Why does a war and Gulf Coast spending bill have millions for riverbank erosion in California, a red tide outbreak in New England and a driver's license facility in Georgia?

The famous Coburn fervor, which has made him a demon of the left on abortion and social issues, is now being turned against big spenders in both parties. And his colleagues are seething. Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), found in the hallway between battles with Coburn, said he pleaded with the Oklahoman to cease and desist after his one victory, killing an earmark for seafood promotion. "I said, 'Congratulations, you won one. Now go away,' " Lott recalled.

The day began with a loss by Coburn and his Sancho Panza, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), on the Hawaiian sugar earmark. They were vanquished by Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), an old bull who spoke of biblical torrents. "For 40 days and 40 nights, it rained in Hawaii," he said.

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