Rumor has it that during tense negotiations late last week, an exasperated House Appropriations Committee Chairman C. W. Bill Young (R-Fla.) tossed his keys across the table to Rep. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), his chief nemesis, and declared, "Here, take the keys. You run the [bleep] committee."

The normally placid Young insists he never uttered those words--he just thought them. What is clear is that Coburn, a steely fiscal conservative, is giving Young and the leadership heartburn.

Almost single-handedly, the 51-year-old doctor from Muskogee brought the appropriations process to a standstill last month with a barrage of floor amendments aimed at cutting money from the agriculture spending bill. Coburn let up briefly early last week after House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) promised to pursue a more conservative strategy--but he turned up the heat on Thursday, demanding and getting cuts in the bill that finances Congress.

Coburn was part of the vanguard of Republican revolutionaries who took control of the House in 1995. Though his formal assignments are to the Commerce and Science committees, Coburn's real passion is budget and spending, and for years he has served as an appropriator without portfolio, promoting his cutting schemes. A year ago, he spurned millions of dollars in special road project funds for his district, charging that House Transportation Committee Chairman Bud Shuster (R-Pa.) was attempting to "buy" his vote for an excessively costly highway bill.

Coburn has little fear in challenging the leaders because he came to Congress promising to stay no more than three terms, and his time is almost up. "There's nothing that I want," he insists.

Many lawmakers in both parties complain that Coburn is a self-promoting purist. Young pointed out that after weeks of turmoil over the agriculture and legislative bills, Coburn had roughly $150 million in savings to show for it--chicken feed in appropriations terms.

Unfazed by his critics, Coburn says every little bit helps: "You can't use a piece of pork to help you get elected next time."

AN AMENDMENT TRASHED: Eco-friendly Rep. Sam Farr (D-Calif.) is furious that House GOP leaders allowed his amendment requiring congressional offices to recycle to be struck on a technicality Thursday night. Farr was hoping to force his colleagues to separate aluminum cans, bottles and paper from regular trash, but House Administration Committee member Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio) successfully struck Farr's amendment to the $1.9 billion legislative branch spending bill on procedural grounds.

"They could have waived it through as they did on 38 other technicalities," Farr said. "But no! . . . How amazing that even congressional rubbish has become a political partisan issue!"

TYING ONE ON: You might not have guessed from C-SPAN, but senators across the ideological spectrum are obsessed with reading neckwear for hidden political signals. This preoccupation manifested itself last Wednesday, when Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) paid tribute to Senate Appropriations chief Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) for making his 12,000th vote.

Daschle noted that Stevens "is recognized for his no-nonsense style, limitless energy and ability to get things done--not to mention an impressive collection of neckties."

Lott took the tie theme one step further: "My favorite one is the Tasmanian devil. When he comes in with that tie on, you know an appropriations bill is fixing to be moved through the Senate."

Stevens, for the record, stayed mum on his sartorial strategy.

HAMMER WATCH: House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) shared some choice words last week for Washington's Evergreen State College, which selected convicted cop-killer and death penalty activist Mumia Abu-Jamal as its commencement speaker.

"The twisted radicals in many of our universities have perverted their vocation to better mankind through teaching," DeLay said. "Instead they take minds and work methodically to replace them with demented ones."

THE WEEK AHEAD: Gun control will reach the floor this week, as the House takes up a juvenile justice bill that will be laden down with everything from measures imposing background checks at gun shows to new restrictions on violence in the entertainment media. Adding to the confusion is the possibility that antiabortion lawmakers could try to attach a ban on "partial-birth abortions."

In the Senate, there may be a cloture vote on the GOP Social Security "lock box" plan--a controversial device to keep Congress from spending the Social Security surplus on other programs.