Senate's 'Dr. No' Spurs Showdown Over Spending

By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 28, 2008

Instead of a keepsake photo of a political hero or his family, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) has a large framed picture next to his desk that serves as a constant reminder of his political ideology. Inside the black frame and matting is a single word, in large white letters: "No."

Coburn has become best known as the lawmaker who says no -- no to increased funding for unsolved civil rights crimes, no to creation of a national registry for victims of the disease ALS, no to more money for child pornography prosecutions.

Using every parliamentary tactic at his disposal, Coburn has tied the Senate in so many knots that Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) has decided on an extraordinary tactic: He will devote most of the Senate's time this week to breaking the one-man stranglehold.

Rolling 35 bills into one omnibus package, Reid will try to leap all of Coburn's parliamentary hurdles at once and win approval for dozens of programs worth more than $10 billion.

"For those of you who may not know this," Reid told reporters recently, "you cannot negotiate with Coburn. It's just something that you learn over the years . . . is a waste of time."

Most of the bills, including a child pornography law that passed the House 409 to 0 in November, are so noncontroversial that they would normally sail through on voice votes, with no roll call taken.

But not while "Dr. No" is in the Senate.

Coburn, an obstetrician and gynecologist elected to the Senate in 2004, believes that many lawmakers propose duplicative programs without any way of measuring their effectiveness. His negotiating stance with the other 99 senators is fairly straightforward.

"If we pass a new program, we either ought to get rid of the old program or we ought to make it to where it blends with this other one so it's effective," Coburn said in an interview last week. "Almost everything that they've offered has a duplicate program out there that they're not either eliminating or changing."

Coburn has turned his office into its own accountability unit. Aides must comb every piece of legislation headed to the floor for potential government waste.

His staff estimates that waste and fraud costs taxpayers $300 billion a year. Next month, for example, Coburn will release a report on alleged Justice Department waste, accusing the agency of spending $312 million on conferences this decade.

Coburn said his colleagues have lost appreciation for the broad national interest and instead hope to pass legislation in their names so they can win reelection. "When you take that oath, it doesn't say anything about your state," he said. "The parochialism needs to die."

Inevitably, his stance has created conflict with some colleagues. While most senators say the 60-year-old Oklahoman is personally gracious, some contend that he is confused about the legislator's role in government.

"What do the constituents in your state expect of you? I believe they expect me to get some things done. I don't believe they're looking for 'no.' They're looking for 'yes,' " said Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who fought Coburn last year over an earmark for a Nebraska-based military contractor.

"We all have our different interests, our different styles," said Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who backed Coburn's primary opponent in the Senate race.

A self-proclaimed "citizen legislator," Coburn was elected to the House in the GOP landslide of 1994 but imposed a six-year limit on himself. In 2001 he returned to his medical practice in Oklahoma until he won the 2004 race.

Coburn quickly learned the complex rules of the Senate, which is sometimes called the "cooling saucer" of the legislative process. Unlike the House -- where the majority can rule with an iron fist even with a one-vote edge -- the Senate acts on a vaguely accepted concept of "unanimous consent."

Without all 100 senators in agreement, it can take a series of deliberative actions and votes to move ahead on legislation.

Consider the Emmett Till Unsolved Crimes Bill, named after the 14-year-old black child from Chicago whose 1955 slaying in Mississippi remains unsolved. The bill, which the House approved 422 to 2 last year, would create a post for a new prosecutor in the Justice Department to investigate unsolved killings from the civil rights era.

Coburn supports the idea of creating a new federal prosecutor -- but only if there are other cuts in spending within the Justice Department to finance it.

Because of Senate rule changes in the 1970s, Coburn is not required to stage an old-fashioned filibuster, which once required personally occupying the floor and talking a bill to death. Instead, he can play a different stalling game that makes leaders reluctant to eat up a week or more of floor time to debate noncontroversial legislation.

For Reid to get around Coburn's hold, he would need to file a motion to proceed to the bill; if at least 60 senators vote for that motion, it would take another two days of debate before Reid could call another vote on a motion to close off debate, called cloture. If at least 60 senators support that, a final vote on the bill is scheduled, but only after another 30 hours of floor debate.

Since January 2007, Coburn has used his senatorial "hold" to block more than 80 pieces of legislation, which means Reid knows that Coburn will object to unanimous consent on those bills.

So instead of filing all those motions, Reid leaves it up to the legislation's sponsor to try to negotiate with Coburn. But the normal legislative give-and-take has no appeal to him. Coburn does not accept earmarks, the spending for pet projects that lawmakers insert into bills. And because of a self-imposed two-term limit, Coburn has no aspirations to become a committee chairman or party leader, so he does not need to do any favors for colleagues.

Senators who have negotiated with Coburn said successful entreaties appeal to his small-government principles, his strong Christian faith or his medical background.

"He has been awfully helpful on some very difficult legislation. He believes in it passionately, and he fights for it," said Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), who sits on a human rights subcommittee with Coburn.

Coburn cites several pieces of legislation that he endorsed, including a $50 billion health-care fund that is designed primarily to fight AIDS around the world, and a measure to prevent suicides among military veterans, as examples of compromise. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), who greeted Coburn with a hug on the Senate floor earlier this month, co-authored government spending transparency legislation with the Oklahoman.

Faced with a backlog of more than 80 bills, Reid selected 35 for the "Coburn" omnibus legislation -- all approved by the House -- hoping to appeal to a broad swath of the Senate.

As early as today, Reid hopes to begin the first procedural vote on the package, with passage possible by week's end.

Coburn, who already has used some tactics to delay consideration by several days, said he does not mind losing as long as the fight prompts a fair and open debate about the size of the federal government.

He explained that the "No" framed on the wall next to his desk was a gift from a liberal priest in Upstate New York who read about his efforts recently, providing him newfound inspiration.

"He sent me that to say: Keep saying no until we get the problems solved," Coburn said proudly.

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