WASHINGTON — Nearly two weeks ago, on C-SPAN, Sen. Tom Coburn had some harsh words for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Coburn, R-Muskogee, accused Reid of avoiding tough votes and said the leader “is keeping senators from having to be who they should be — men and women who are willing to stand up and take a position and defend it.”
Whether or not he was directly responding to those comments, Reid gave Coburn a chance on Monday to take a position and defend it. Coburn declined to take a position.
Reid, D-Nev., set up a vote to advance an Oklahoman nominated for a federal appeals court past a Republican blockade. There were other appeals court nominees, ones who had been awaiting action longer, but Reid chose to make U.S. Magistrate Judge Robert E. Bacharach the test of whether the GOP filibuster could be broken.
Reid quoted Coburn on the Senate floor Monday and noted that Coburn and Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Tulsa, had strongly endorsed Bacharach, a magistrate in Oklahoma City, for the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
“If Senator Coburn and Senator Inhofe withdraw their support for this qualified nominee, blatant partisanship will be to blame,” Reid said.
“But don't take my word for it. Senator Coburn said Bacharach is ‘an awfully good candidate caught in election-year politics.'”
Coburn and Inhofe didn't vote against moving Bacharach's nomination forward. But they didn't vote in favor of it either. Both voted “present.” Only three Republicans — two from Maine and one from Massachusetts — backed Reid's effort to advance Bacharach, and it failed by four votes.
A historian for the U.S. Senate Historical Office said Tuesday that voting “present,” essentially not taking a side, “doesn't happen that much anymore but it used to be fairly common.”
In the 1950s and 1960s, she said, senators would vote “present” when they didn't want to take a position on controversial issues or oppose their party.
Coburn has cast just over 2,400 votes in the Senate since 2005, but that may have been his first “present” vote. A spokeswoman said she could not find any other instances of Coburn voting “present.”