WASHINGTON — Sen. Tom Coburn, who has spent a combined 15 years here rooting out government waste and warning about mounting U.S. debt, will resign after the current session of Congress, foregoing the final two years of his term.
Coburn, R-Muskogee, has been battling a recurrence of prostate cancer but said he wasn't leaving early because of his health.
In a brief interview, Coburn said he wanted to focus on the next stage in his life.
“I've had a lot of changes in my life,” Coburn, 65, said. “This is another one.”
Coburn said he had some ideas about what he would do next but that he wasn't ready to discuss them. He said his wife, Carolyn, was “ecstatic” about his decision.
In a prepared statement, he said, “My commitment to the people of Oklahoma has always been that I would serve no more than two terms. Our founders saw public service and politics as a calling rather than a career.
“That's how I saw it when I first ran for office in 1994, and that's how I still see it today. I believe it's important to live under the laws I helped write, and even those I fought hard to block.”
In an interview in November, shortly after he began treatment for prostate cancer, Coburn told The Oklahoman, “I got good assurances that I'll be around five or ten years, unless I'm another 1 in 100,000 that doesn't respond to treatment.”
Coburn has become increasingly frustrated with the Democratic leadership of the Senate, which has routinely blocked him and every other senator from offering amendments to bills. He said in November that he would leave his seat early if he thought he and his staff could not make a difference “that will change what's coming for this country.”
Coburn's decision could set off a major scramble among Republicans hoping to replace him. U.S. Reps. Tom Cole, R-Moore; James Lankford, R-Oklahoma City; and Jim Bridenstine, R-Tulsa; will likely consider the race, along with Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt.
Coburn timed his resignation so his replacement could be elected during the regular ballot process this year. It will be a very compressed time frame for a statewide race, particularly for those who don't have statewide name recognition.
Both U.S. Senate seats will be on the ballot in Oklahoma. U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Tulsa, is running for re-election.
Coburn's resignation will become effective early next year when his replacement is sworn in.
Coburn had limited himself to two terms in the Senate, so he would have been retiring in 2016 if he hadn't decided to leave early. His replacement will be elected to complete the last two years of his term.
A physician, Coburn won a U.S. House seat in 1994 and served until 2001, leaving because he had limited himself to three terms there.
He ran for the Senate in 2004, entering the race relatively late, but he still easily beat the Republican field and then defeated former U.S. Rep. Brad Carson in the general election.
In the House and Senate, Coburn relentlessly attacked spending of all kinds from both parties, and likely had more influence than any other member in killing off the pork barrel system that gave lawmakers millions of dollars each to spread around their districts.
He has engaged in battles big and small over spending, blocking new programs that he considered duplicative and proposing major changes to Medicare and Social Security. His annual Wastebook is a compendium of spending items
Inhofe said Thursday night, “I was honored to help recruit Tom in 1993 to run for the House of Representatives.
“I knew then that he was an intellectual and superb medical doctor. As we worked together, I came to learn he also had the skills that made him arguably the most sought after adviser in the Republican conference. In every policy decision, Tom has sought to be a faithful steward of the taxpayers' money and a dedicated public servant to Oklahoma.”