A mover and shaker comes to the Senate

Meet The Press
Republican Senator-elect Tom Coburn of OklahomaAlex Wong / Getty Images file
/ Source: msnbc.com

It is probably a once-in-a-lifetime event when NARAL Pro-Choice America and House Speaker Dennis Hastert see eye-to-eye on something.

Both the abortion rights group and the Republican House Speaker are not keen on the newly elected senator from Oklahoma, Dr. Tom Coburn, who may be the most unswerving conservative in the new Senate that convenes on Jan. 3.

Two weeks before Election Day, Hastert predicted that Coburn would “probably” lose to Democrat Brad Carson, a statement that might fairly be read as not helpful to Coburn’s cause.

Far-right extremist?
NARAL Pro-Choice America warned before the election that “Coburn’s candidacy is an ominous vision of what the future may hold for choice, unless America’s pro-choice majority makes its voice heard this fall.” The group said it would try to “ensure that far-right extremists such as Coburn are not allowed to determine the future of America’s women.”

Hastert proved to be an erring forecaster: not only did Coburn win on Nov. 2, he beat Carson by twelve percentage points.

When one thinks of Coburn, a fiscal hawk and an outspoken abortion foe, and his effect on the Senate, the expectation might be: “buckle your seat belts, ladies and gentlemen, turbulence ahead.”

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., wants to curb the Senate tradition of the filibuster when Democrats use it to block judicial nominees, but Coburn said Monday when it comes to pork-barrel spending, he considers the filibuster a legitimate way to stop it.

“The history of the Senate shows that on economic issues, the filibuster can at least prolong the debate,” he noted.

He added that it was “premature right now to say whether that ought to be utilized” and implied that a filibuster on spending measures won’t be needed if the Senate leadership does its job in writing sensible appropriations bills.

Mastering the rules
At the press conference where Coburn and other newly-elected GOP senators spoke, they were introduced by Sen. George Allen of Virginia, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, who said, “This is the advice I would give to you all: the Senate worships process — remember the common sense that you heard from people in South Carolina, North Carolina…. Oklahoma — real people in the real world think that if a nominee gets over 50 percent of the vote, that nominee is confirmed.”

But Coburn knows that the Senate’s "process" — mastery of its rules — may be the key to his hopes of restraining spending and passing conservative social legislation.

"My goal is to learn the rules as well as Robert Byrd," he said, referring to the 45-year veteran West Virginia Democrat who has been steeped in the Senate’s traditions and procedural minutiae longer than anyone.

"I promise you I will be sleeping every night with that book," Coburn said, referring to former parliamentarian Floyd Riddick’s compilation of Senate precedents. "And I’m reading the history of the Senate to see how the rules are used, because I’m going to use the rules. That’s how you get things done, and whoever knows the rules gets the most done."

Coburn did make some conciliatory sounding statements Monday: "I have a reputation that precedes me that’s not necessarily reflective," he said. "I don’t want to enhance that (reputation) and I don’t want to alienate anybody that I might have to work with."

Some Senate observers had thought Coburn might be kept in restraint by a veteran chief of staff, but Coburn has chosen Michael Schwartz, a social conservative who recently served as vice president for government relations of the advocacy group Concerned Women for America.

What becomes of Specter?
Instead of being restrained, Coburn might be spurred on by Schwartz who has been sharply critical of Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., slated to be the new Senate Judiciary committee chairman.

“Sen. Specter has disqualified himself from any right to be considered as chairman of the Judiciary Committee,'' Schwartz said last week, reacting to Specter’s statement that it would hard for judicial nominees opposed to the 1973 Roe v. Wade abortion decision to win Senate confirmation.

Coburn himself would not tell reporters Monday what he might ask Specter when the Pennsylvania senator meets with his colleagues this week.

Coburn, a family physician before being elected to the House in 1994, made his fame in his three terms as an unflinching opponent of abortion and a sponsor of a bill to block government approval of the abortion drug, RU-486.

On fiscal matters, Coburn fought bitterly with then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich and other GOP leaders. In his 2003 book, Breach of Trust, Coburn portrayed Gingrich as lacking in courage and in good judgment.

Coburn said Gingrich was outwitted by President Bill Clinton in the 1995 battle over the budget which led to temporary shutdown of the government. “Our leaders folded instead of standing their ground,” Coburn wrote. “History shows that the shutdown fight was a fight we could have won.” 

In 1997, Coburn was one of several House Republicans who plotted to overthrow Gingrich. The plan began to go awry when Coburn insisted on then-Rep. Bill Paxon not then-House Majority Leader Dick Armey replacing Gingrich.

The Gingrich coup attempt showed Coburn is audacious to a fault.

“He is not a go-along-to-get-along kind of guy,” said David Keating, executive Director of the Club for Growth, the fiscal conservative group that supported Coburn in his race against Carson. “We hope he’ll be effective in getting his Senate colleagues to restrain the growth of spending.”

Looking for military lard
That includes the military budget, Keating said. “Tom Coburn knows waste when he sees it. If someone lards up the defense budget with something that is not defense, he’ll scream and raise heck.” 

Keating added, “His weaknesses are in some respects his strengths as well.” By weaknesses, Keating said he meant “his willingness to speak his mind.”

Coburn’s readiness to voice his unorthodox views was evident again Monday when a reporter asked what lessons he drew from the decision of drug manufacturer Merck to withdraw the drug Vioxx from the market.

“Every medicine has major side effects. If you look at the number of deaths that are occurring from aspirin, it’s probably just as great as the number of deaths that occurred from Vioxx. I think there has to be a balanced approach. If there are problems with information not coming forward to the Food and Drug Administration, that’s one thing, but there’s a balance and every medicine has a down side.”

Perhaps one reason Coburn is not afraid to take risks is that he is a two-time cancer survivor, having melanoma in 1975 and colon cancer last year.

“I didn’t do this (run for the Senate) because I necessarily wanted to come back up here, I did this because I thought I was supposed to,” he explained Monday, attributing his decision to “an impression in my spiritual life that that was something I should do.”