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Tom Coburn Won't Be Going Away Quietly

(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Sen. Tom Coburn is retiring at the end of this Congress, but the Oklahoma Republican has put the word out that he isn't likely to let the Senate have its end-of-session legislative feeding frenzy.  

Thursday may be the last day of the work period before the elections and, as usual, some senators are making a final push on pet legislation, including renewing a travel promotion bill that Coburn has long opposed.  

"I am not inclined to let things go," Coburn said, when asked if he planned to hold up last-minute efforts to get unanimous consent to pass legislation before the Senate heads out of town.  

Coburn said he would be more likely to let bills through with unanimous consent after running through the hotline process if Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., let more measures come to the floor for debate. Coburn, who has been battling cancer, has cited a lack of debate as one reason he is retiring early. He's been one of Reid's harshest critics.  

"That is our whole problem," Coburn told CQ Roll Call. "The Senate as a body doesn't want to address the issues of the country because there is political downside."  

Coburn cited a lack of a desire to vote on authorization of use of military force to take on Islamic State extremists as another example of the Senate shirking its duty because of political calculation.  

"The institution has already lost all of its authority under Sen. Reid," Coburn said.  

Lawmakers typically pass a slew of legislation and nominations before adjourning. Anything that doesn't make it usually has to wait for the next session and practically begin the process anew. This year, lawmakers will get a second chance in the lame-duck session scheduled to begin on Nov. 12 .  

For Coburn, this effort represents what could be his final chance to bring Senate business to a halt, as he has many times in the past .  

As for the tourism bill that helps market the U.S. as a destination for international tourists, Coburn said it is not the role of the federal government, suggesting the measure's supporters are attempting to "fit in to the general welfare clause or the commerce clause that has been so bastardized and prostituted" and blamed measures like this for why the nation has $17 trillion in debt.  

But the bill is popular and has bipartisan support, and Reid has in the past demonstrated a willingness to dedicate substantial time to the issue. The fight is a microcosm of Coburn's Senate career — and a dozen years of swimming against the tide.  

Republican Roy Blunt of Missouri is a leader on the travel legislation, and he's seeking to overcome objections to get the bill through this year.  

"No U.S. tax dollars involved, no American taxpayers pay into that fund, and it's produced good results I think after the first four years or so of the program being in effect," Blunt told CQ Roll Call. "Our bill, which has already passed the House, has the kinds of reforms in it that looked at how this is being done and have worked to make it even better."  

Blunt said it seems senators have "a little more inclination to come back and do some things in November" than usual, but held out hope his deal could be sealed before they seek the exits. “I think there will still be a real interest in the next 48 hours of seeing how many things can be put together ... that there's broad bipartisan support for and just get done," Blunt said.  

Republican Conference Chairman John Thune of South Dakota said senators have tried to make the legislation "palatable for conservatives, myself included." He also predicted that toward the end of a session, "bills that have been stacked up, piled up, somebody has holds on them, then a lot of stuff gets cleared at the end because all of the other … stuff that people have been maneuvering around starts to go away when you get to the end of a session."  

Coburn is expected to object to quick passage of the bipartisan manufacturing bill — also backed by Blunt — that the House cleared this week. Blunt had hoped to get unanimous consent to pass the bill with no effort.  

For more contentious measures, senators have been engaging in familiar pre-election unanimous consent theater, forcing opponents to register objections. Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, for instance, made another call for consent for ratification of a treaty regarding the rights of people with disabilities, and Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., wants to pass a bipartisan criminal justice overhaul.  

"Every member has their list of small things that they are hoping to get done by unanimous consent," Sen. Rob Portman said. "We'll be pushing on ours."  

The Ohio senator was the lead Republican on one of the noncontroversial bills that moved through the Senate on an expedited process Tuesday evening. He teamed up with Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts to change default investments in federal Thrift Savings Plan for younger workers, to increase the rate of return.  

"It's a no-brainer that will make a real difference for many federal employees by helping to increase their retirement savings without any additional cost to the government," Warren said in a statement.  

Portman also said he hopes an energy efficiency bill that he has sponsored with Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., comes up in the lame-duck session. That bill stalled after Republicans sought to offer five amendments to the measure, including to speed up natural gas exports and oppose EPA regulations on future power plants.  

   

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