War funding. Medicare payments. Unemployment insurance. A Democratic Congress cannot pass spending bills into law that until now have been considered a lock for approval because of concerns over the nation’s deficits and debt.
There is some infighting among Democratic leaders. And then there’s Tom Coburn, the Republican senator from Oklahoma.
Coburn is the physician and un-politician who began this spring to publicly block extensions of unemployment insurance for Americans without jobs. Instead of being pilloried – as fellow Republican Sen. Jim Bunning of Kentucky was when he stood in the way of an extension in late February – Coburn gained traction.
In recent weeks, he and other GOP senators have insisted that every cent of a roughly $100 billion spending package including UI, as it is known, be offset by spending cuts.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, has whittled down the bill and peeled off most of the Democrats who were voting against it because of concerns about adding to the deficit. On Tuesday he was still a few votes short of the 60 needed to break the GOP filibuster.
If Coburn is pleased with his success, he hides it well.
“There’s momentum but it’s not mine. The American people are demanding it,” Coburn said during an interview in his office. “We’re looking over a cliff right now.”
Though in his own gruff way, Coburn does acknowledge his role in forcing Congress to start reining in spending: “I’ve been talking for five years about this.”
Recently Coburn has taken to the Senate floor to deliver soliloquies castigating not just Democrats, but also his fellow Republicans, for Congress’s profligate ways, most of the time speaking without notes or prepared remarks.
“We are thieving,” Coburn railed. “Generational theft is what we are about … What an abandonment of our oath … We have the gall to come out here week after week and spend money we don’t have on some things that are necessary, some that are not, but that allow us to continue to spend billions of dollars on things that we should not be spending it on because, basically, we lack courage. It is cowardice.”
Last week, Coburn employed a rare maneuver dubbed “the clay pigeon” – breaking his amendment into 20 separate pieces each requiring a vote on matters such as reducing budgets for each lawmaker’s office – to up the pressure on his fellow senators.
The senator said that America’s high level of debt has cost 1 million jobs this year and that the economy would be growing at a 4.5 percent rate rather than 3.5 percent if the debt were lower.
“We’re getting very close to breaking the back of the spending super majority,” said Coburn spokesman John Hart. “Our strategy is … to put members on record supporting wasteful spending so voters can understand the extent to which Congress is out of touch.”
A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, called Coburn’s move “a cheap stunt.”
Opinion is mixed among Coburn’s Senate colleagues about his line-in-the sand mentality.
“I think it’s a helpful thing that people raise issues of paying for legislation. That’s what I’ve done for many years. That’s what he’s doing,” said Sen. Russell Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat.
Yet Feingold also said: “I can’t understand people not being willing to extend unemployment insurance.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, said the Coburn blockade is not a positive.
“Everything I’ve read from economists is that we should do unemployment insurance. It spreads money throughout the economy. It helps take care of people who are out of work. And I really think it’s important to do it,” Feinstein said. “I think we should try and pay for as much as possible. To the best of my knowledge UI has always been done as an emergency measure.”
Feinstein said spending should be paid for “at some point because of the way things are going but I don’t just happen to think this is that point.”
President Obama is the lone Democratic leader that Coburn does not hit like a piñata. Coburn has a personal friendship with Obama that he goes out of his way to preserve, to the point that on June 17 he said Obama is not to blame for government spending.
“This government is so far out of control. It is not President Obama’s fault. It is the Congress’s fault,” Coburn said in his June 17 speech.
When asked about Obama’s remarks last Saturday, when the president said GOP opposition to the spending bill in the Senate was “dreary and familiar politics” that he deemed to be “destructive to the country,” Coburn barely flinched.
“I don’t think that’s true. You know I think he’s going to read the script they give him,” Coburn said, defining “they” as “the speechwriters or political people.”