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Federal Diary: Dr. No Succeeds in Killing Sick-Leave Bill, For Now

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) was incensed by the bill's $3.1 billion price tag.
Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) was incensed by the bill's $3.1 billion price tag. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
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By Joe Davidson
Tuesday, July 28, 2009

They don't call him Dr. No for nothing.

Republican Sen. Tom Coburn, a Muskogee, Okla., physician, earned that moniker with his consistent objection to legislation that he regards as an irresponsible use of the government's money.

His latest target was a bill eagerly awaited by many federal employees. The measure, among other things, would have allowed those in the Federal Employee Retirement System to count unused sick leave in their retirement calculations.

Coburn saw this as an insult to others who are suffering during the recession.

"I was mortified at the lack of sensitivity to the rest of this country, placing federal employees' very good benefits -- enhancing those above the negatives that are occurring to every family in this country based on our economic situation. Even if we were not having a tough economic time, it would still be wrong to do this," Coburn said in a speech on the Senate floor last week.

Dr. No was incensed by the bill's $3.1 billion price tag. The government should take that money and create employment "so people have jobs in this country rather than paying federal workers," he said.

But Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii), who sponsored the measure, said it actually would reduce the deficit by $36 million over 10 years. He said the Office of Personnel Management estimates that $68 million is wasted in unnecessary sick leave costs because FERS employees use it rather than lose it before they retire.

Coburn's discourse wasn't just a speech. It was an unabashed filibuster, the Senate tactic of talking a bill to death. Real filibusters aren't as common as they once were. Now the mere threat of one, generally by a senator pushing a minority position, is enough to have the majority back off or find the 60 votes needed to invoke cloture, which means ending the debate.

Sometimes senators pretend they are trying to educate other members or the public by talking forever about the bill in order to forestall its approval. But Coburn, a principled man who has beaten cancer twice, finds no need to hide behind such niceties.

"I plan on speaking on this bill until cloture ripens, which means we are going to be here all night," Coburn said. "Until this amendment is withdrawn, I will stay here, or I will have a colleague stay here, and we will talk about how this country is out of control in its spending."

That's not all Coburn discussed during his filibuster. There was also information on how to catch an armadillo. "All you have to do is to lay a few marshmallows out and then put a marshmallow or two in the trap cage, and you will catch those suckers," the man of untold talents informed listeners.

The filibuster surprised Akaka, who did withdraw his bill. He believed there were 60 votes in favor of it, he said, but Senate procedural rules meant that retreating to continue the fight another day was the best course of action.

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© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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