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Pork hunter

Politics | Sen. Tom Coburn keeps up the lonely fight against congressional earmarks

Issue: "'Into captivity they shall go'," Feb. 24, 2007

A $463.5 billion spending resolution passed the House by a 2-1 margin at the end of January, as Congress accelerated fiscal business while eyeing a Feb. 15 deadline to extend the federal budget or face a partial government shutdown.

But congressional crunch time did not faze Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who sent a letter notifying his fellow senators that he would object to any budget legislation that failed to meet his criteria of fiscal responsibility. "For too long, Congress has simply borrowed more and more money to pay for new spending," Coburn wrote to his colleagues on Feb. 5. "Americans want Congress to live within its means, using the same set of common sense rules and restraints they face every day."

Coburn then announced to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) that he would block the spending resolution if Democrats did not allow amendments to the bill-which he estimates to contain $11 billion to $17 billion in pork.

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Senate procedure allows individual senators, especially those with a stubborn streak, the opportunity to block legislation-a power famously dramatized by Jimmy Stewart's ardent filibuster in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

But since Republicans in the last Congress failed to pass a FY 2007 budget, the new spending resolution combines nine previous spending bills and includes one-sixth of the federal budget.

With the stopgap deadline approaching, Coburn's announcement briefly raised the specter of the near government shutdown in 1995, when a Republican Congress faced off against President Bill Clinton-until Congress blinked first.

Coburn, who proposed a stopgap extension until March 1, denied that shutdown was the goal. "Nobody wants to shut down the government," Coburn told WORLD. "But what we want to do is have an honest debate about what the spending priorities are for this country."

A day after Coburn's letter circulated on Capitol Hill, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) opened debate on the spending resolution but took procedural steps to control amendments, effectively thwarting any attempt to block the bill with a procedural tactic employed by former Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.).

This time, the junior senator from Oklahoma conceded, "they're going to get their way."

Coburn is a man of mixed metaphors-a self-described "mole" burrowing underground while shedding "sunlight" on the dark deeds of Congress. He knows he is "ruffling a lot of feathers" when he chastises members for taking "their eye off the ball."

But his broader message is largely consistent. "The problem with ethics in Washington is not lobbyists. It's members," said Coburn, who cast one of two votes against the Senate ethics bill, which he regards as weak and "pharisaical."

He cited a number of pork projects that would be funded by the current spending resolution-including $1.5 million for the construction of an entrance to the U.S. National Arboretum and $591,000 for the Montana Sheep Institute. He regards media reports that the budget is free of earmarks as "an outright lie."

In his fiery indignation about the fiscal excesses of Congress, Coburn has alienated members of both parties. First elected to the House during the 1994 Republican Revolution, Coburn imposed (and kept) his own six-year term limit but grew increasingly disillusioned with fellow Republicans who did not.

After his election to the Senate in 2004, Coburn spotted an extra $200 million in the transportation budget, money designated for a bridge in Sen. Ted Stevens' (R-Alaska) home state-a bridge as long as the Golden Gate, to connect an island of 50 people to the coast. Disregarding the customary freshman silence, Coburn confronted Stevens, by then the longest-serving Senate Republican, and proposed that the money be spent to rebuild New Orleans instead. The "Bridge to Nowhere" became a national symbol of pork-barrel politics, but Coburn still lost the vote, 82-15.

Though his doggedness has earned few friends on Capitol Hill, Coburn shrugs off the Beltway critics. "I'm not bothered by Washington," he said. "Look, I came here with one purpose in mind, and that's to try to change the culture."

With the clock already ticking on a two-term Senate promise, Tom Coburn has the next 10 years to attempt just that.

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