Sen. Reid Thwarted On Bundle Of Bills

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) has placed holds on dozens of bills over the past two years, citing objections to wasteful spending.
Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) has placed holds on dozens of bills over the past two years, citing objections to wasteful spending. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Senate Republicans yesterday blocked consideration of 35 bills that were rolled into one omnibus measure designed to overcome the objections of Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who has used parliamentary tactics to stymie dozens of pieces of legislation.

Siding with Coburn, most Republicans voted against bringing up the omnibus bill, worth more than $10 billion, contending that it would take debate time away from energy legislation and efforts to bring down gasoline prices.

"The American people are asking us to do something about the price of gas at the pump," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who called energy legislation that includes more domestic oil production the "number one issue in the country."

The 52 to 40 tally in favor of considering the bill was eight votes shy of the 60 required. Democrats threatened political retaliation against Republicans in November for blocking legislation that included starting a national registry for people with the neurological disease ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease.

"You tell [voters] that 'I wanted to get out of Washington, I didn't have time to do it,' " Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid said.

Reid cobbled together the 35 bills -- each of which had passed the House by large margins -- into one legislative package in an attempt to overcome all of Coburn's parliamentary obstacles at once. Coburn is opposed to creating federal programs unless other programs he considers duplicative are eliminated or reduced in scope, and he demands that new programs also contain measures of their effectiveness.

"We don't do that in this city. We just conveniently charge it to our grandchildren," Coburn said in debate before the vote, noting the record $482 billion deficit projected yesterday for 2009.

Coburn said there are only five bills in the omnibus package that he "adamantly" opposes as unnecessary, including one that would place restrictions on the sale and interstate transport of apes and monkeys and another that would establish a commission on the bicentennial celebration of the War of 1812. Many of the measures would normally pass the Senate on a voice vote, but under the rules one senator may block that process by issuing a "hold."

Coburn has put more than 80 holds on legislation since January 2007. Each would force Reid to spend more than a week of legislative floor time on a noncontroversial bill. More often, the bills just languish.

Coburn, a family physician in Oklahoma, has imposed a two-term limit on himself.

He also remains locked in a dispute with the Senate ethics committee over his medical practice in Muskogee. In an interview last week, he said he has delivered about 75 babies since becoming a senator in 2005.

He said he recently sent the ethics committee a letter telling them that his practice does not violate long-standing Senate rules that prohibit its members from holding partnerships in professional firms in the fields of medicine, law and engineering.

The committee and the Senate, in a 2005 vote, rejected his proposal to operate a medical practice that charges enough to cover his insurance and administrative costs, so Coburn now pays those costs out of his own pocket and does not otherwise charge his patients.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairman of the ethics committee, said last week that the panel stood by its previous rulings but declined to comment about its consideration of Coburn's medical practice. "He knows what he's supposed to be doing," she said.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company