July 21, 2011


Dr. No to the Debt Rescue:
Tom Coburn is giving his fellow conservative Republicans political cover to vote for a debt compromise. (Patricia Murphy, Jul 20, 2011, Daily Beast)

"I think it could be a game changer," said Doug Thornell, a political consultant and former senior aide to Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a key Democratic negotiator. "You have Tom Coburn, who has never had his conservative bona fides questioned, embracing this. If the idea picks up some steam, there is a possibility that this could change the trajectory of the discussions and we could get it done."

Coburn's move not only revives momentum for the talks, it also gives fellow conservatives broad political cover to consider a plan with revenue increases, even in the face of outright opposition from most GOP leaders.

Coburn, Mike Crapo, and Saxby Chambliss "are some of the most conservative members of the Republican caucus," Sen. Lamar Alexander said Tuesday when he endorsed the Gang's plan. "So if they study something for six months and tell me it's good for the country, that means a lot to me."

Coburn's role as a Senate middleman is one of the most surprising developments in the entire messy debt standoff. Not only is he one of the most conservative members of Congress, he's earned the nickname "Dr. No" for his history of stalling, stopping, or blocking more than 500 bills--including, for a time, a bill to compensate 9/11 first responders. This, naturally, has infuriated some of his colleagues. George Will once called him "the most dangerous creature that can come to the Senate, someone simply uninterested in being popular."

The good doctor abruptly bolted from the high-profile Gang of Six debt negotiations in May, complaining that Democrats would not make real changes to entitlements. "It's just a recognition that we can't get there," he said at the time.

But Coburn is also one of Obama's closest, and least likely, friends on Capitol Hill. The two hit it off at a freshman orientation dinner in 2004 after both won their seats and have remained close ever since. Coburn regularly writes personal notes to the president, and Obama once called Coburn "my brother in Christ" at a Washington prayer breakfast.

The Oklahoman also has said that middle ground has to be a part of the debt deal. On Monday, he unveiled his own plan to slash $9 trillion from the federal budget--more than double the size of the "grand bargain" that Obama and House Speaker John Boehner had briefly embraced. The Coburn blueprint includes $1 trillion in defense spending cuts and more than $1 trillion in revenues from ending tax subsidies, sacrosanct items in previous Republican budgets. "Here we have this great big problem and what do we want to do? Punt because it's easier?" he said. "That's not what I came here to do."

Think of him as a beard, providing them cover.

Posted by at July 21, 2011 6:54 AM

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