By MARSHA MERCER
For years, Sen. Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma, has been sand in the gears of Washington’s well-oiled spending machine.
His straight talk, independence and relentless pursuit of what he considers the wasteful use of taxpayers’ dollars have alienated many in both parties, earning him the nickname “Doctor No.” Coburn is an M.D. family practitioner.
It’s a sign of how bizarre things have become in the nation’s capital in 2011 that some of his former allies, including Grover Norquist of no-tax-hike pledge fame and Tea Party groups, are now kicking sand at Coburn. His unpardonable sin is he’s sometimes willing to compromise.
A few years ago, Coburn signed Norquist’s pledge not to raise taxes or revenues. He since has untied his hands.
“Which pledge is most important…the pledge to uphold your oath to the Constitution of the United States or a pledge from a special interest group who claims to speak for all American conservatives when, in fact, they really don’t?” he said in April on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
And so, the man who tried to block spending for the “Bridge to Nowhere” in Alaska and countless other pet projects of lawmakers, the foe of what he considers silly research programs at such revered institutions as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, is on the outs with the Republican right.
For his part, Coburn, 63, has said the Tea Party is one of the best things to happen to the country, and it’s great that the American people have forced a shift in the Washington debate from where to spend to where to cut. That’s not enough for those who call him traitor.
In normal times, Coburn would be a logical choice for one of the three Senate Republican slots on the new joint, bipartisan committee, a.k.a. “Super Congress,” that will be charged with reducing the federal deficit by $1.2 trillion later this year. Coburn told Politico he’ll never get tapped by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. The Kentucky Republican has vowed not to pick anyone who favors revenue increases as part of a deficit-reduction deal.
Coburn is open-minded, at least on some taxes, sometimes. As part of the Gang of Six negotiating a debt-ceiling deal, he said he’d consider an increase in tax revenues if tax rates were cut.
While President Obama was dickering with House Speaker John Boehner over a “grand bargain” to cut deficit by $4 trillion – but still not bringing the federal budget into balance -- Coburn released his own, 614-page plan. He outlined ways to cut the deficit by $9 trillion over 10 years and balance the budget.
Coburn’s plan includes a variety of proposals, among them slashing pay for members of Congress, cutting Congress’ budget 15 percent and closing tax loopholes and breaks. Norquist’s group, Americans for Tax Reform, attacked Coburn’s plan as a trillion-dollar tax hike.
Coburn walked out of the Gang of Six talks when he failed to get Democrats to agree on Medicare and entitlement cuts. He later returned to the Gang, but voted no on the debt-ceiling compromise that Obama signed into law.
“In spite of what politicians on both sides are saying, this agreement does not cut any spending over 10 years. In fact, it increases spending by $830 billion,” Coburn wrote Tuesday in The Washington Post. “It eliminates no program, consolidates no duplicative programs, cuts no tax earmarks and reforms no entitlement program.”
He said he believes no substantial spending cuts will happen until after the November 2012 election, if then. As for the trigger mechanism that’s supposed to make $1.2 trillion in Pentagon and domestic cuts if the 12-member “Super Congress” deadlocks, Coburn says he doubts the cuts will ever happen. Congress will just wave them away.
Coburn has resisted Washington’s siren song. When he promised to serve just three terms in the House, he actually went home to Muskogee after six years. Elected to the Senate in 2004, he considered not running again. He did win re-election last year but has announced he won’t run again.
“Washington has imposed (the debt crisis) on the American people through laziness, incompetence, dishonesty and political expediency,” he wrote in the Post.
That’s strong medicine from Doctor No.
© 2011 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.