The Senate's class of 2010 may have Sen. Jim DeMint (S.C.) partly to thank for their electoral victories, but if they're going to flourish in the chamber they may want to follow the lead of conservative Sen. Tom Coburn.
Republicans said Coburn — who often leads his party's charge against earmarks and spending — is as conservative as many of the likely GOP newcomers, but also is close to Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.). They argue that the Oklahoma Republican may be the best Member to help his party's leadership work with the new class and help the freshmen adjust to the Senate.
Among the potential crop of new GOP Senators are Delaware's Christine O'Donnell, Nevada's Sharron Angle, Kentucky's Rand Paul, Alaska's Joe Miller, Utah's Michael Lee, Florida's Marco Rubio and Wisconsin's Ron Johnson, many of whom are backed by the tea party movement and endorsed by DeMint. DeMint would appear to be the logical mentor for the next crop of Members. But he has spent most of his Senate career as an outsider: Many of his colleagues view his floor fights as transparent partisan exercises, and many Senators are unhappy with his efforts to only elect conservative Republicans, even if that comes at the expense of a majority.
McConnell has not formally spoken to Coburn about serving as a liaison to the incoming GOP Senators, but a veteran GOP operative familiar with the pair's relationship predicted Coburn would step into such a role. "There's hardly a better model than Tom Coburn," the operative said, arguing that the conservatives running for the Senate this year share the Oklahoma Republican's commitment to party principles.
"They share a common goal with Coburn. They didn't run because they want to be here and grandstand. They ran for the opposite reason ... which is to hold the conservative mantle, but also be effective."
When asked about the role he might play in helping the new Members get acclimated to the Senate, Coburn would only say he had an interest in doing it "informally."
Sen. Orrin Hatch (Utah) said Coburn would make "an excellent bridge" between the conservative newcomers and the rest of the Conference.
"I think he'll be a natural leader for many of the new conservative people who come in and to listen to," he said.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said Coburn may be the ideal person to serve as a liaison to the freshmen, saying: "No one doubts his sincerity, no one doubts he believes what he's saying. He doesn't try to get ahead at your expense."
[IMGCAP(1)]"He's against earmarking, but Tom Coburn is a bridge to somewhere," Graham quipped in a reference to Coburn's crusade against the "Bridge to Nowhere" in Alaska, which was appropriated through a federal earmark.
Coburn's colleagues have not always been so charitable. Coburn came to the Senate in 2005 with a reputation as an ideologue who was difficult to work with.
Leadership, veteran and rank-and-file Republicans alike viewed Coburn — a one-time House Member — as an outsider. His early battles against earmarks and the federal budget inspired clashes with McConnell and other Republicans, such as the late Sen. Ted Stevens (Alaska), former chairman of the Appropriations Committee.
Coburn also developed a penchant for using the Senate's arcane floor rules — traditionally the domain of leadership — to force repeated votes on his priorities, even when the bulk of his Conference was opposed.
The hostility between Coburn and GOP leaders was palpable during his first years in the chamber. In 2005, the Ethics Committee sought to force Coburn, a doctor, to abandon his medical practice, arguing it violated the chamber's rules.
But since the Democratic takeover the Senate in 2007, Coburn has become an accepted member of the Conference.
Coburn and McConnell meet regularly to discuss parliamentary tactics and legislation, and the Minority Leader has become one of Coburn's biggest defenders, privately and publicly, Republicans said.
Coburn still doesn't always have the support of entire Conference. Republicans point to Coburn's fight earlier this year over expiring unemployment insurance benefits: He led that charge despite opposition from many of his colleagues. But unlike in the past, when Coburn's colleagues would have worked to stop him, McConnell rallied Republicans to stand behind him.
"He's willing to stand up to Republican leaders and Democratic leaders ... [and] they respect Tom Coburn," said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who noted that "it wasn't that way initially. But after the American people rallied to Coburn's [position] ... he's more popular today."
Even some Democrats acknowledge that Coburn is an honest broker: "You know where you stand with him," a veteran Democratic aide said, adding that "people don't like to say this, but he's not Jim DeMint."