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

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) has held up bills worth at least $10 billion.
Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) has held up bills worth at least $10 billion. (Melina Mara/twp)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 28, 2008; Page A01

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."

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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."


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