In bidding farewell to the Senate — and perhaps to Washington — Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn dismissed some of the most common notions about the chamber.
"The magic number in the Senate is not 60 ... and it's not 51, a majority. The most important number in the Senate is one. One senator," Coburn said from the Senate floor on Thursday. "With that comes a tremendous amount of responsibility, because the Senate has a set of rules, or at least did, that gives each individual member the power needed to advance, change or stop legislation."
To that end, Coburn's farewell address won't actually be his last speech on the floor. He's vowing to require the Senate to exhaust the 30 hours of debate allowed under the rules on the annual defense policy bill, objecting to the inclusion of an unrelated package of lands bills that might have been dubbed a "Tomnibus" in a previous Congress. If all time is used, it would expire late afternoon on Friday.
"Unfortunately, this won't be the last time I speak, much to many of your chagrin, as I have some adamant opposition to some of the things that we're doing," Coburn said.
Much of Coburn's process argument was about the important role of unanimous consent in guiding the chamber's activities.
"It just takes a single senator to withhold consent to stop most legislation. There are many other rules and procedures a member can use. They're often referred to as arcane, but that's only because they're rarely used. They're not arcane," Coburn said. "They were designed to protect liberty, to secure liberty, to make sure that we don't follow history and fail."
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was among the colleagues on the floor praising Coburn's persistence.
"Washington is really going to miss Tom. Which is ironic, because Tom can't stand Washington. When he first got here, the feeling appeared to be mutual," the Kentucky Republican said. "Some just didn't know what to make of this doctor from Oklahoma so frequently on the losing end of lopsided votes, so often pressing ahead on his own but never giving up."
"He may have placed more holds than any equivalent senator in history. He apparently held his own bill once," McConnell said.
McConnell, who will take over as majority leader in the new Congress, then highlighted the fact that over time, Coburn has come to be viewed in some circles as a creature of the establishment.
"It might seem contradictory. But Tom always fought smart battles — the kind you might lose today but win later," McConnell said.
Coburn, who has had no shortage of fights with Democrats and Republicans, also offered an apology.
"To those of you through the years who I have offended, I truly apologize," Coburn said. "I think none of that was intended, [but] because I actually see things different. You see, I believe our founders were absolutely brilliant. Far smarter than us. I believe the enumerated powers meant something."
"I think about my father," he continued. "He had a fifth-grade education. A great believer in our country, he wouldn't recognize it today. The loss of freedom that we have imposed by the arrogance of an all-too-powerful central government, ignoring the wisdom and writings of our founders that said above all we must protect the liberty of the individual and recognize that liberty as given as a God-given right."
Coburn also highlighted the work of countless support staffers, whom he called "both brilliant and committed and dedicated to the founding principles of this country."
"I first wanted to say that there are a lot of people I need to say thank you to. From our parliamentarian, Elizabeth, to all the staff that works here in the Senate, to the people who work at GAO, wonderful people. CRS, the IGs, leg. counsel. They've written thousands, literally thousands of amendments for me. They're probably going to have some real mixed feelings about my departure," Coburn said.
Continuing to tear up, he praised his personal staff and the aides in the cloakrooms on both sides of the aisle, also lauding his Democratic counterpart at the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Chairman Thomas R. Carper of Delaware.
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