The Senator Fighting Pork

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Tom Coburn, a Republican Senator from Oklahoma, has a problem with the $106 billion bill the Senate is working on that would help pay for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, preparation in case of a breakout of avian flu, rebuilding of the Gulf Coast following Hurricane Katrina — and many tangentially related projects. Well, actually, the first-term Senator has at least 19 concerns. He called $176 million in the bill to refurbish a retirement home in Mississippi for veterans an "arbitrary sum." Another $10 million to equip fishing boats with logbooks to record data on how much they fish they were catching was "corporate welfare." And to Coburn, a $500 million provision to pay a defense contractor for business it lost due to Hurricane Katrina was "unnecessary and excessive corporate welfare."

A soft-spoken, polite man who has long worked as obstetrician, Tom Coburn has angered senators from the right and the left in his decade-long battle to cut what he considers pork-barrel spending from the federal budget. Coburn has diagnosed such spending, known as earmarks, as "the gateway drug to spending addiction" and he's determined to cure Congress of this malady. As the Senate has worked to pass a key appropriations bill over the last two weeks, Coburn has attached 19 amendments to the bill, all targeting spending provisions he thinks are pork. Most famous for his attacks last year on the so-called "Bridge to Nowhere" — which would have spent more than $200 million to connect two virtually uninhabited areas in Alaska — Coburn now has his eye on a bunch of projects inserted in this bill by two of the most experienced and powerful men on Capitol Hill, Mississippi Republican Senators Thad Cochran and Trent Lott. And while Lott and Cochran won a vote last week to keep in the bill $700 million for a railroad in Mississippi damaged by the hurricane that has already been rebuilt (a project dubbed the "Railroad to Nowhere" by critics), the Senate rejected $15 million for a program to promote eating seafood. "We're making good progress," said Coburn. "It tells you they're [his colleagues] listening better." With the Senate looking to move on to other issues, Coburn says he won't push for votes on all 19 of his amendments, but will insist on a handful, particularly one to stop money from going to Northrop Grumman, a shipbuilding company that lost money because of work disruptions after Hurricane Katrina.

The mild-mannered Cochran seemed a bit frustrated with Coburn's tactics last week, and that's not unusual. Coburn's habit of going down to the Senate floor and ridiculing projects his colleagues want funding for is "annoying" to some of them, says Mel Martinez, a Republican from Florida. Alaska's Ted Stevens threatened to resign from the Senate if it supported Coburn's drive to cut the "Bridge to Nowhere" from last year's budget, and Coburn won only 15 votes for the provision. But while his victories are rare and the ire from his colleagues high, Coburn says he doesn't mind. "I don't care about the next election. I don't care about getting reelected," he says. "We have to change the process."

Controversy is nothing new for Coburn, who joined the Senate in 2005. Elected to House in the historic Republican takeover of Congress in 1994, Coburn developed a reputation there for annoying Republican colleagues by demanding for cuts in wasteful spending. Along with his fiscal conservatism, he's also a strong social conservative. He's been criticized by other doctors for questioning the effectiveness of condoms and last year suggesting Terry Schiavo's doctors had not properly diagnosed her condition. He has suggested that if abortion is made illegal, doctors who perform abortions should be given the death penalty and called the notion that global warming is occurring "crap." And for many years, looking to promote abstinence, he has given Capitol Hill staffers a detailed presentation on sexually transmitted diseases that includes many pictures showing how they harm the body.

While they may not endorse his views on social issues, Coburn's allies on his efforts to cut spending are perhaps the two most popular men in the Senate: Illinois Democrat Barack Obama and Arizona Republican John McCain. Before Coburn arrived in 2005, McCain was the chamber's most vocal basher of wasteful spending, but he has eagerly ceded that to Coburn, while working with the Oklahoma Senator to strategize on how to cut earmarks from this month's war spending bill. Obama, much to the left of Coburn, is an unlikely friend, but the Senate's most famous freshman said his and Coburn's wives became fast friends during the orientation for new senators and their families, and Obama has vocally supported Coburn's spending efforts. "He's fearless in his approach," says Obama. Coburn has also found support from groups like Citizens Against Government Waste and the American Conservative Union, as well as a blog called porkbusters, to which his office is often feeding information about egregious earmarks, in the hopes of stirring opposition in conservative blogs that could embarrass his colleagues into limiting their earmarks.

But while Coburn is dogged, it's not clear how effective he is. No matter how many earmarks Coburn fights, dozens remain in the bills Congress passes. And for all the attention he has received, Coburn is calling for only $3 billion in cuts in a $106 billion bill. "The cost of pork in dollars amounts is not that large," says Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, "but in terms of time and energy, it takes up a lot." To achieve Coburn's goal of balancing a federal budget of more than $2 trillion — with an estimated deficit this year of more than $300 billion — would require drastic spending cuts that Coburn might support but that his colleagues would almost surely oppose even more fiercely than they have fought his campaign against earmarks. But Coburn is determined. Asked by reporters where he would take his pork fight next, he mentioned some spending bills coming up and added with a smile, "It's going to be a fun summer."


One of the constant complaints about the Bush White House from Capitol Hill is that the Administration doesn't listen to members of Congress. But since the appointment of new chief of staff Josh Bolten, the White House seems to be trying to change that. In a period of about 36 hours last Tuesday and Wednesday, President Bush personally met with about one quarter of the U.S. Senate. There was a bipartisan discussion with five Democrats and five Republicans about Iraq on Tuesday morning, followed by another large bipartisan session on immigration. The next day, Bush invited a group of about nine GOP senators, mostly chairmen of key committees, to another meeting in which he listened to their concerns on a wide range of issues. "I think it's a major outreach program," said Olympia Snowe, a Republican from Maine.

Ultimately, of course, many Senators will judge the President's "listening" campaign on whether he heeds their advice. And on that score, it was a mixed bag. Snowe, in the meeting with top GOP senators, called for Bush to extend the May 15 deadline for when seniors can sign up for the prescription drug plan and offered several proposals to lower gas prices. But the Maine Senator and the President couldn't even agree on how many seniors have yet to sign up for the drug plan (Snowe said 8 to 10 million , while Bush said it was 6 million). However, the White House did agree with one of Snowe's suggestions, announcing the next day a proposal to increase fuel economy standards for cars, as part of its strategy to reduce gas prices. On the other hand, when Republican Arlen Specter brought up his concerns about the NSA domestic wiretapping program that allows searches without warrants, the President "didn't choose to engage" on the issue, according to the senator. The next day Specter held a press conference in which he said he might seek to withhold funds from the NSA for the searches until the Administration informed Congress more fully about the program.