It was the middle of the afternoon, and Tom Coburn was steaming.
It wasn’t the weather. The Republican senator from Oklahoma had had it with Congress’ refusal to do anything other than wait around for President Obama and Mitt Romney to duke it out for another three months.
“I’m disgusted with Washington,” said Coburn, during an interview in his Capitol Hill office in July. A stethoscope hung on the door handle behind the 64-year-old obstetrician.
Coburn is almost always grouchy. But he insisted this time was different.
“I think I’m probably at the highest level of frustration I’ve ever been since I’ve been in Washington,” said the two-term senator, who plans to leave the Senate in 2016, under a self-imposed term limit.
“Everybody says we can’t do anything before the election, we might not get reelected. Well why the heck did we come here if it wasn’t to fix problems?” Coburn demanded.
Coburn may be one of the few people in Washington — in all of American politics — who refuses to accept the status quo in an election year.
When he points out that “the problems are obvious,” he’s obviously correct. The national debt is approaching $16 trillion, the government has run four straight trillion-dollar deficits, the economy is stalled for the third year in a row, and the tax code has become so unpredictable due to short-term fixes that the expiration of multiple patch-like measures at the end of the year has come to be known as “the fiscal cliff.”
But that hasn’t stopped most everyone else from throwing up their hands and waiting and hoping that the Euro zone holds together and the bond market maintains faith in U.S. debt for a while longer.
Not Coburn. For years he has worked to reduce the deficit, even reaching across the aisle to Democrats as a member of the Gang of Six and the Bowles-Simpson commission. When the fight comes later this year and early next year over how to handle the fiscal cliff, and when the debate over tax reform and possibly entitlement reform is raging next year, Coburn will be a key player in the middle of it all.
But the idea of waiting to get to work on these big issues, instead of just dealing with them now, was so irritating to Coburn that it seemed to be giving him almost physical discomfort.
“The election’s hurting the country,” he said. “I’m almost to the point where I think we should have one six-year term of a president so they’d never run for reelection. Because for the last year and a half he’s been running for reelection rather than running the country.”
The “he” that Coburn referred to, of course, is Obama, the target of much of Coburn’s criticism these days. But Obama is also Coburn’s personal friend, going back to when both entered the Senate in 2004 as freshman and formed a quick bond.
Coburn regularly sends handwritten notes to Obama. “I wrote one last week,” he said.
But his bond with the president is fraying a bit as the national debt — Coburn’s top concern — heads skyward, with no sign of an agreement in sight to slow it down.
Coburn wrote in his recent book, The Debt Bomb, that Obama’s refusal to engage with the Bowles-Simpson deficit-reduction commission in 2010, and his rejection of their recommendations, “will be remembered as one of the greatest failures of presidential leadership in American history.”
“Look, I love the guy personally. We just — we’re not the same politically,” Coburn said.
It didn’t sound like his notes are being reciprocated.
Coburn admitted: “He’s a little cold right now.”
“I’ve been critical. So I don’t blame him. You know, when my wife chides me, it hurts. When your friend criticizes you, it hurts. So, you know, that’s normal. But it hasn’t changed my feelings for him,” Coburn said.
And Obama is not the only person Coburn has struck out at. During his interview with HuffPost, his frustration with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) was evident.
“My ability under the rules of the Senate — when they’re not hijacked by the majority leader — is I have the ability to offer any amendment on any bill at any time I want,” Coburn said. “Well, Harry shut all that off and he’s rigidly controlling.”
Coburn said Reid has used procedural tactics to limit debate and prevent amendments “so that they won’t have to take votes, because it’s all political.”
“It doesn’t have a damn thing to do with the country. It has to do with an election. And that’s obscene in my mind,” Coburn continued. “He has a hard job, I agree. But it’s not a hard job if you let things operate. Things will work out.”
Coburn went even further in a recent appearance on C-Span, calling Reid “incompetent and incapable of carrying on the leadership in the Senate.” He later apologized for those remarks.
Coburn has always believed in the power of open debate, going back to 2005, when he took on a powerful senator in his own party, former Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), and exposed the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere,” a $400 million boondoggle in Alaska that would have connected the mainland with an island with just 50 inhabitants.
“I knew I wasn’t going to win on the Bridge to Nowhere,” Coburn said, referring to the fact that the Senate overwhelmingly rejected his first amendment to defund the bridge. The bridge was, however, ultimately cancelled once the public became aware of the debate, which never would have happened if Coburn hadn’t made it an issue.
“Losing is winning,” he said. “Because you have the debate. And you raise the level of discussion. If the American people knew what I know about the waste, the fraud, the abuse, the duplication in our government today, they would fire us all in a nanosecond. If they just knew it.”
But Reid, he says, has not allowed any substantive back and forth.
“When was the last time you actually heard a real debate in the Senate?” Coburn lamented. “I mean a real debate. The last time it was was two and a half years ago with me and Dick Durbin, back and forth on the floor. I mean, a real debate, based on issues and facts and a debate.”
Durbin, the number two Democrat in the Senate, is in fact something of a Coburn ally, if not an ideological brother in arms. The two have developed a mutual respect and trust from their time working together on the Bowles-Simpson commission, then in the Gang of Six in 2011, and on into present-day efforts to reach some kind of agreement on reducing the deficit.
“I’ve spent more time with Tom Coburn than almost any Republican talking about these issues, going back and forth. And occasionally we’ve locked horns, but by and large I think we have a very positive working relationship, trying to solve this problem,” Durbin said in an interview. “We’re not where we need to be and I think that reflects his frustration.”
Coburn is a long way from his early days as a senator, when he was known more for making harsh statements about social issues than he was for taking principled stands — even against his own party — to try to restrain government overspending.
“I thought he was extreme, and didn’t feel very close to him at all for the longest time,” Durbin said. But through the last two years they have, Durbin said, become “fraternity brothers.”
Coburn, Durbin said, is “much more sensitized to political realities” than he was in the past.
It’s that increased sensitivity, as Durbin put it, that has made Coburn a target for some on the right who are now calling him a traitor to the conservative cause.
And in fact, while Coburn has rebuked Obama and Reid, his most bitter foe in Washington is Grover Norquist, the conservative power broker and anti-tax crusader who runs Americans for Tax Reform. Coburn and Norquist have battled for over a year now, largely fighting over whether closing tax loopholes and eliminating deductions qualifies as a tax increase. In addition, Coburn voted for the Bowles-Simpson plan, even though it included tax increases.
Norquist has long held influence with Republicans in Congress by pressuring them to sign a pledge promising not to raise taxes. But as a result of Coburn’s defiance, a small number of Republicans have begun to voice disagreement with Norquist.
“I think he has given a lot of his colleagues some room to think about their whole relationship with Norquist and his political operation,” Durbin said.
Norquist disputed a claim by Coburn’s office that 35 of 41 Senate Republicans have sided with Coburn against Norquist on multiple votes.
“Not very nice to try and claim he has company for his tax hike fantasies,” Norquist wrote in an email.
But Coburn, while he would like to see spending and the deficit reduced without taxes going up, believes the country is in too serious a situation to put purity ahead of a compromise solution. He is a bridge between the Republicans and Democrats.
“The country’s bankrupt, we’re seeing it unfold in Europe. We’re going to see it unfold elsewhere, and it’s going to come to us,” he said. “What we have on both sides of the aisle are groups of people who refuse to make the hard choices. And so the country suffers.”
“What we lack,” he says, “is leadership.”
Jon Ward is a senior political reporter at The Huffington Post.