Coburn Backs Into Landrieu Race

Posted October 10, 2008 at 6:22pm

When Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), a gadfly of Majority Leaders and tormentor of appropriators, blocked two late-term pieces of legislation by Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), he likely didn’t think the decision would push him to the front of the Bayou State’s political consciousness.

But thanks to Landrieu’s decision to go on the attack against Coburn in his home state of Oklahoma — and vocal support for his filibusters by her GOP opponent, state Treasurer John Kennedy — Coburn has joined the likes of Blaze Starr and former Gov. Huey Long in the state’s already-stacked pantheon of colorful political characters.

As the Senate was scrambling to wrap up work on the massive $700 billion economic recovery bill, Landrieu made a last-minute push to move a $1 billion agricultural assistance package aimed at farmers in Louisiana and other parts of the country that had been hit by natural disasters this year.

The legislation, which had significant bipartisan support, was fast-tracked by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), and appeared on its way to approval.

But the bill — as well as a measure sought by Landrieu dealing with a number of Federal Emergency Management Agency public assistance programs in Louisiana — ultimately died when Coburn raised objections to an effort to move them without debate.

At the time, a Coburn aide said the lawmaker had blocked the bill in part because Congress had just passed the multibillion-dollar bailout package. “This is a time for Congress to tighten its belt, not to spend $1.17 billion on a duplicative disaster bill,” the aide said. “Sponsors should first pay for this new request by cutting other areas of the budget.”

Landrieu, who voted against the economic recovery bill, slammed the holdup, arguing that Congress should provide some relief to farmers, particularly in light of the billions it had agreed to spend on fixing the financial sector.

“If this Congress is prepared to spend nearly a trillion dollars covering the mistakes of Wall Street financiers, certainly we can set aside one-tenth of one percent of that amount to help stand up our farmers and rural communities,” Landrieu said in a statement.

Under normal circumstances, the back and forth would have likely ended there, as it has countless times in Coburn’s career.

Not one to shy away from angering his colleagues — including many members of the GOP — Coburn has become a master of using arcane Senate rules to bring to a screeching halt scores of bills he finds questionable.

But this time around, Coburn’s filibuster of Landrieu’s legislation followed his decision to support the $700 billion recovery bill, and Landrieu’s aides saw a perfect opportunity to take on the conservative gadfly.

According to one aide, Landrieu’s office took the unusual step of contacting a few reporters in Oklahoma about the filibuster, arguing that the legislation would have brought financial assistance to farmers in that state as well. The goal, the aide said, was to try to drum up support in the Oklahoma agricultural community for the bill and bring pressure on Coburn to allow it to pass, possibly during the lame-duck session.

“At the end of the day, I could send out 100 press releases in Louisiana about Tom Coburn, and it wouldn’t affect him one lick,” the Landrieu aide said.

In response, Coburn’s office fired back, releasing what one Senate aide quipped was a “Tolstoy press release” filled with finely detailed critiques of Landrieu’s record on farming issues, setting off a back and forth between the two offices that has brought increasing attention to the issue in both Louisiana and Oklahoma — and increasingly harsh rhetoric.

At the same time, Kennedy — who has received $10,000 from Coburn’s political action committee, according to federal records — released a statement from Coburn on his Web site lambasting Landrieu.

“While I’m touched by Senator Landrieu’s concern for Oklahoma farmers, she has failed to inform farmers in her state, as well as mine, that her last-minute proposal will do nothing to help farmers. In fact, her proposal is a step backward from policies Congress enacted in this year’s farm bill. This proposal is not a bridge, but a boondoggle,” Coburn said.

Landrieu’s campaign quickly fired back, attacking Kennedy and his “friend” Coburn. “John Kennedy says he will stand up for Louisiana, but he has aligned himself with anti-Louisiana Senator Tom Coburn and took the maximum contribution from the Oklahoma legislator,” Landrieu campaign spokesman Scott Schneider said in a statement.

“Sen. Coburn was the ONLY objection to $1.12 billion for Louisiana farmers, but John Kennedy couldn’t get him to change his mind,” the statement continued. “This was a day after Kennedy’s friend voted for a $700 billion bill to bail out Wall Street. Kennedy’s priorities are not Louisiana’s priorities. We cannot afford to have him in the U.S. Senate,”

Kennedy praised Coburn in a newsletter sent to supporters. “We all want to help farmers and those in need … but Mary Landrieu thinks Louisianans can’t tell the difference between spending to help hurting families and spending designed to help politicians,” Kennedy said. “Well, folks, we do,” he added. “And so does conservative Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who caught Mary Landrieu red-handed playing politics with our farmers.”

Meanwhile, Louisiana’s Republican Agriculture and Forestry Commissioner Mike Strain came out in support of the bill — and against Coburn — last week.

In response, Kennedy has since backed away from his criticisms of Landrieu, telling the New Orleans Times-Picayune that, “I support aid for our farmers, and in particular I trust Mike Strain’s judgment. … If he says it’s good for our farmers, I trust him.”

Coburn spokesman John Hart defended his boss’s efforts. “Sen. Landrieu is looking for someone to blame for the gulf between her rhetoric and accomplishments. Her attempts to portray Dr. Coburn as hostile to Louisiana are a hard sell when her party’s own nominee for president, Barack Obama, has spent the last year talking about his close work with Dr. Coburn on the Katrina recovery effort,” Hart said.

A Republican familiar with the campaign said that Coburn’s sudden high-profile role in the race is a surprise and speculated that Democrats may be attempting to use him as a foil similar to the way the right has long used Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) to tar candidates with the “liberal” tag. “Maybe they’re trying to make him our Kennedy,” the Republican source said.