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For doctor, the Senate is a bitter pill
Oklahoma's Tom Coburn says Congress isn't good for what ails us

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.

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.

"He is a very good doctor and everybody has ailments," said Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). "So some of us, including me, run it by him first."

Ensign lived with Coburn in the C Street House, a brick rowhouse where eight or nine Christian members of Congress share a home, meals and Tuesday night Bible study.

Sin is swirling in Washington's caldron of self-absorption and "arrogance," said Coburn. He said extramarital affairs are not unique to Capitol Hill, but that somehow politicians think they won't get caught. "People succumb to sexual sins a lot in our society, or sexual failings -- or fidelity failings, let me put it that way."

In fact, his C Street address has been splattered three times with sex scandals. Former representative Chip Pickering (R-Miss.) brought his mistress there, according to court papers filed recently by his estranged wife. Gov. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.), who has been unusually descriptive about his steamy liaison with an Argentine woman, said he sought spiritual counsel in the Capitol Hill residence.

Speaking more like a preacher than a politician in his Senate office, Coburn said the focus of his talks with Ensign and Hampton was to help them keep their marriages intact. Other officials have run from the increasingly isolated Ensign. "If somebody disappoints you, do you abandon them or try to help them?"

Coburn insists his C Street home, affiliated with the Fellowship Foundation, a group that runs the National Prayer Breakfast, is pretty ordinary: "It's not any different than living anywhere else, except on Tuesday nights we have a Bible study and a couple fixes us a meal."

He said he pays $950 a month for his Washington weekday home and will serve only two terms in the Senate. One of the most popular politicians in the state, he is up for reelection next year for that second term.

When Coburn served in the House of Representatives from 1995 to 2001, the rules against House members earning outside income were interpreted to mean he could cover costs -- just not make any money -- from his medical practice. He delivered 400 babies during that time. But after he arrived back in Washington as a new senator in 2005, he was told he couldn't charge anything at all. He said that meant he was unable to pay the tens of thousands of dollars in annual medical malpractice premiums, so he now just sees a few patients, free of charge.

Watchdog or impediment?

Coburn will use his time in Washington, he said, to sound the alarm on the ballooning deficit and to defeat as many bills as he can that would add to the national debt, including health-care reform.

"The ground is shaking," Coburn said on a speech on the Senate floor Wednesday, warning that America was at a "rendezvous" moment, sagging under trillions in debt.

It is Congress, he said, that is steering the American ship toward the disastrous shoals.

"The country would be much better off if they kept us at home and not let us vote on anything."

He fears Congress will create more government programs that are wasteful, duplicative and easy to defraud.

He and the only other physician in the Senate, John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), this summer began a weekly Internet video show called "The Senate Doctors Show." As the two taped it in the basement of the Capitol one recent evening, Coburn told listeners he worried about the "unintended consequences" of the health care bill, feared patients would wind up paying more for insurance, and predicted an "exodus of good people" from the medical profession.

Stopping -- or trying to -- government initiatives is his passion.

Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), who recalled how Coburn voted against a farm bill dear to him, called Coburn "a burr in my saddle."

This week, veterans groups criticized Coburn for putting a hold on a veterans' benefits bill. He says he supports it in concept but doesn't want to borrow more money to fund it.

"Tom is clearly motivated by being almost an ombudsman" in the Senate when it comes to the budget deficit, said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.). "He believes he can use his one vote as a block."

Unfortunately, Cardin said, Coburn has set his sights on several of Cardin's initiatives, including the commemoration of the upcoming 200th anniversary of the War of 1812. But Cardin said that's a big deal in the Washington area since the British set fire to the White House and Francis Scott Key penned "The Star-Spangled Banner" after witnessing the bombardment of Fort McHenry near Baltimore.

Coburn said that with the economy the way it is, this is no time to pay for commemorative parties.

"He can be frustrating," said Cardin.

Others agree, dubbing Coburn "Dr. No."

"He slows things and makes it very difficult to get your work done," said Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.). "A lot of us, including myself, don't like that."

Several other senators said they like Coburn personally but vehemently disagree with his hard-core conservative, pro-gun, anti-gay-marriage stances. "Beware of he who prays loudest in church," said one Democratic colleague as he disappeared into a Senate elevator.

Coburn insists he doesn't care what people think of him, and resumes his tirade against his elite political club. For one thing, said the doctor, there are too many lawyers in the Senate -- about two-thirds of the 100 are.

Referring to a poll that showed only 16 percent of Americans thought Congress was doing a good job, Coburn said he thought that was "way too high." Those 16 percent, he said, "are totally uninformed about what is going on in Washington.

"If they really knew what was going on here, they would be terrified!"

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