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U.S. Debt Debate Gives Coburn Chance to Alter ‘Dr. No’ Image

Senator Tom Coburn, a physician-turned-politician, wants a central role in the debate over how to reduce the federal debt. Photographer: Chris Kleponis/Bloomberg
Senator Tom Coburn, a physician-turned-politician, wants a central role in the debate over how to reduce the federal debt. Photographer: Chris Kleponis/Bloomberg

Feb. 8 (Bloomberg) -- Visitors to Senator Tom Coburn’s office can’t miss a giant, scrolling “U.S. debt clock” chronicling the government’s fiscal imbalance that spurred him to single-handedly block hundreds of bills -- and earned him the nickname “Dr. No” from colleagues.

Along a nearby wall is a smaller display: mementos from the 2006 White House signing of legislation he and then-Democratic Senator Barack Obama sponsored, creating a database of federal-fund recipients.

Now, the Oklahoma Republican is looking to add to that modest bipartisan accomplishment with something loftier. Coburn, a physician-turned-politician, wants a central role in the debate over how to reduce the federal debt.

He reached out to Democrats last year when, as part of President Barack Obama’s debt commission, he said “yes” to a $4 trillion budget-reduction plan that included tax increases and defense spending cuts typically rejected by his party.

Coburn, 62, also is part of a bipartisan group of senators in talks about a debt-reduction plan; other participants include Richard Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democratic Senate leader, and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, a North Dakota Democrat.

“In recent months, I think he recognizes the opportunity he has to have far more influence in being part of a solution than in stopping things,” said former Senator Byron Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat who didn’t seek re-election last year.

Affordable Government

Coburn, who in 2010 obstructed 120 of his colleagues’ measures, said he’ll continue to “say ‘no’ to growing the government until we can afford the government we’ve got.”

Still, he said in an interview, “we have to have the discussion in this country of how do we get out of this deep hole we’re in. The longer we wait to have the discussion, the harder it is to get out of it.”

His adherence to conservative positions gives him the potential to expand the ranks of Republicans willing to compromise on fiscal issues, said John Fortier, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

“Coburn is somewhat of a bridge to some of the conservative populists” who won Senate seats in November’s elections, Fortier said. “At this point, he’s looking to bring people into the fold.”

‘Not Radical’

That effort includes discussions with many of the dozen freshman Senate Republicans, who include Tea Party-backed lawmakers sharing his views on spending. Referring to the Senate’s total of 47 Republicans, Coburn said, “I’ve got 41 fiscal conservatives I can probably count on to support common-sense -- not radical -- adjustments to our budget that the American people will agree with.”

A bespectacled Baby Boomer who says he missed the 1960s’ counterculture because he was too busy working for his father’s Muskogee, Oklahoma-based optical business, Coburn didn’t plan on a political life. After expanding the company’s lens division, he sold it to Revlon Inc. for $40 million in 1975 and attended medical school. He decided to run for office after his Democratic congressman called for an expanded government role in health care.

Elected to the House in 1994, Coburn became best known for his battles against abortion rights. Abiding by a term-limit pledge, the father of three returned to his obstetrical practice in 2001. He re-entered politics in 2004, winning an open Senate seat with 53 percent of the vote. He won his second term last year with 71 percent.

Obama entered the Senate the same year as Coburn, and the two forged a friendship that helped pass the database bill. They still talk with each other once or twice a month, said John Hart, the senator’s spokesman.

Museum Deal

Coburn earned his “Dr. No” moniker by blocking bills when other senators didn’t negotiate with him on ways to pay for them. Measures he’s either killed or delayed include allowing the Smithsonian to sell land to the National Women’s History Museum -- he said the private museum might later seek federal subsidies -- and creation of a Justice Department job to probe unsolved killings from the civil rights era.

Coburn doesn’t sit on the committees that oversee tax and spending policy. Still, he has combed through the federal budget, identifying $350 billion in possible savings through selling off unused government property, cutting payments to government contractors and ending duplicative programs.

A test of whether Coburn can expand his influence beyond the power of a single senator to stymie legislation will come when the administration formally requests a boost in the nation’s $14.3-trillion debt limit.

Republican leaders say they want spending concessions in exchange for supporting a long-term debt-ceiling increase and preventing a default of government financial obligations.

Entitlement Targets

Coburn said he wants cuts in projected spending totaling $500 billion each of the next two years. His targets include the Social Security and Medicare entitlement programs.

The unsuccessful debt-commission plan Coburn backed in December included proposals to raise taxes by $1 trillion, primarily by scaling back or eliminating hundreds of tax breaks. His stance drew the ire of Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, a Washington-based anti-tax group, while gaining praise from those focused on deficit reduction.

“It was a Nixon-goes-to-China thing that he would sign onto a deal that would have a mix of spending cuts and revenue increases,” said Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition.

To contact the reporter on this story: Laura Litvan in Washington at   or

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at

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