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.
Hes against earmarking, but Tom Coburn is a bridge to somewhere, Graham quipped in a reference to Coburns crusade against the Bridge to Nowhere in Alaska, which was appropriated through a federal earmark.
Coburns 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 Senates 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 chambers 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 Coburns biggest defenders, privately and publicly, Republicans said.
Coburn still doesnt always have the support of entire Conference. Republicans point to Coburns 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 Coburns colleagues would have worked to stop him, McConnell rallied Republicans to stand behind him.
Hes 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 wasnt that way initially. But after the American people rallied to Coburns [position] ... hes 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 dont like to say this, but hes not Jim DeMint.