WASHINGTON — Sen. Tom Coburn has waged many a lonely fight here, some of which alienated and even angered his fellow Republicans.
But he was unsympathetic — to put it mildly — with the uphill battle by a small group of his GOP colleagues to defund Obamacare through a must-pass spending bill; in fact, this time, he was among the alienated and angry.
From the beginning, Coburn, of Muskogee, dismissed the tactics of Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Mike Lee, R-Utah, as futile and ultimately dishonest.
And shortly after Cruz ended a 21-hour talkathon Wednesday, Coburn went to the Senate floor to say the “thousands and thousands” of people calling his offices in support of Cruz had been sold “a bill of goods.”
“When I have young interns and young staff in my office taking significant calls from people who have been misled, there is no way you are going to talk them out of a position that outside interest groups and a small number of people inside the Senate have planted,” he said.
Coburn has been vilified on his Facebook page in recent days, called a traitor, a RINO (Republican In Name Only) and many unprintable things. Callers to his offices also have been insulting. Once considered a hard-core conservative, a member of the far right, he might be a target of a challenge from the right if he hadn't term-limited himself.
And he's clearly disgusted with the tactics.
Friday, after he and a majority of Senate Republicans rejected entreaties by Cruz and Lee to block action on the spending bill, Coburn made a not-so-veiled dig at Cruz.
“When some senators were using flawed and pretend ‘filibuster' tactics to defund Obamacare that were destined to fail, they should have instead been focusing on how the (spending bill) wastes scarce taxpayer dollars by funding, for example, studies about how Americans view the filibuster,” he said.
Coburn's own unwinnable fights
Coburn's pointed disdain for colleagues is unusual, though not unprecedented: He has spoken so critically of Senate majority leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., that he once went to the Senate floor to apologize for the words he used.
What seems extraordinary is how vehemently Coburn has opposed an effort to defund a law he detests.
It's obviously not just because he saw the fight as unwinnable, though he definitely did see it that way.
Coburn has never shied away from fights that appeared unwinnable. He spent years in the House and Senate attacking pork barrel projects and had few allies in either party. When he started trying to remove those projects from spending bills, some of his Republican colleagues criticized him harshly and even yelled at him on the Senate floor.
He rarely won a vote, but ultimately, in no small part because of his efforts, the Senate and House shut down the earmark process.
He once brought the House to a standstill in his quest to reduce agriculture funding.
And he angered many senators in both parties with the dozens of bills he stalled because they called for more spending. He was, like Cruz, often accused of simply trying to score political points.
Looking for a budget deal
With his Senate career winding down — Coburn has term-limited himself and won't run again in 2016 — he has become more inclined to look for compromise on budget issues. He has become increasingly concerned and frustrated about the mounting national debt and more impatient for a grand bargain that will control entitlement spending.
And rather than fight a battle that he considers a “farce,” he wants lawmakers and federal agencies to focus on eliminating the government waste and fraud he has helped root out or bring to light.
For him, the fight over defunding Obamacare was a sideshow, spurred on by some of the outside interest groups that used to revere him.
While senators spent days talking about Obamacare, Coburn complained that the spending bill violated the budget caps set in the 2011 debt ceiling agreement.
“Lost in the back and forth this week regarding whether or not to shut down the government over Obamacare was a real debate about all the other things that this bill will fund,” Coburn said Friday.
In an interview this week, the senator said, “Our real problem is our financial condition. Why would we fight over anything but that?”