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Senator and doctor Tom Coburn offers no easy prescriptions for the country

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By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Tom Coburn is a Southern Baptist deacon, a family man married to a former Miss Oklahoma, a white-coated physician back in Muskogee who has delivered more than 4,000 babies and sees patients free of charge every Monday.

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But there's a darker side of the story, something that Coburn, a Marcus Welby type in ostrich-skin boots, confesses is his less honorable side.

He's a member of the United States Senate.

"I would fire us all," Coburn says, blasting Congress, as he does every chance he gets, as a place populated by people who don't do a whole lot to make the country a better place.

"I don't get my identity from being a senator," said Coburn, 61, a Republican. "I may get some of it from being a doctor . . . a real honorable profession."

Coburn has no faith that Congress will improve America's health care system and says the Senate even makes it hard for him to heal the sick. He recently had to stop delivering babies and now only sees a few patients for free because of what he calls absurd rules governing outside compensation for U.S. senators.

Being a deacon, doctor and lawmaker gets complicated.

Coburn found himself the target of critics earlier this year when he invoked doctor-patient privilege regarding conversations with Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), about a high profile sex scandal.

Coburn had said he would refuse to talk to anybody, "not to the ethics committee, not to a court of law," about what Ensign told him. Watchdog groups are raising ethical concerns about Ensign's efforts to get his mistress's husband a job. The husband, Doug Hampton, who had worked for Ensign, also called Coburn about getting a multimillion-dollar payout from Ensign.

Coburn now says what he meant to say was that he didn't want to repeat "icky" details of the "sordid affair" but would talk to Senate investigators if they had any legal or ethical questions.

The 'good doctor'

The latest in a long line of self-professed outsiders, Coburn has made his name railing against big-spending Washington. But he is also the quiet insider, the senator whom other colleagues confide in about spiritual or medical problems.


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