Feb. 6, 2016 SIGN IN | REGISTER

Coburn Could Be the Freshman Liaison in 2011

Bill Clark/Roll Call
Sen. Tom Coburn (Okla.) may emerge as the unofficial mentor to incoming GOP Senators. He shares their conservative views but is also close to leadership.

“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.”

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