WASHINGTON -- Sen. Tom Coburn, playing his familiar role of skunk at the Sunday school picnic, is arguing that massive federal spending in the wake of Hurricane Katrina must entail some sacrifice. By that he meant the pork so dear to his colleagues. That has evoked an icy response, not only from Congress but from the White House as well.
Coburn, a freshman Republican from Oklahoma, telephoned Joshua Bolten, director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), to ask support for $15.3 billion in offsets based on the administration's own proposed terminations and spending reductions. Bolten politely informed the senator that the administration's hands were full dealing with Katrina's aftermath.
Coburn told me he did not blame Bolten but his superiors. The superior he meant was George W. Bush. On the Senate floor last week as the emergency Katrina bill was passed, Coburn declared: "I am disappointed in our president for not bringing forward with this bill recommended spending cuts that would easily be achieved in the discretionary budget of this country to pay for the disaster assistance." Citing calls for "sacrifice" by Americans, he declared that "it is no sacrifice on the part of Congress to steal $51.2 billion from our grandchildren."
When Bolten appeared before House Republicans the evening of Sept. 7, members of the conservative Republican Study Committee went to the microphone with complaints similar to Coburn's. Bolten responded, much as he had to Coburn, that this was not the time to try offsets when a 24-hour turnaround on the aid bill was necessary.
However, Coburn's problem is less Bolten or even Bush and more his Senate colleagues. While the House at least has tried to stay within the administration's bounds, the Senate threatens to run wild with new earmarks and additional spending. Senators are tapping money from the Defense budget on grounds all such funds will be restored.
Bolten promises to revisit offsets, and he can count on Coburn pressing him to keep that promise. Coburn's performance confirms dread of him as a senator by establishment Republicans, both in Oklahoma and the nation's capital. A plain-spoken obstetrician from Muskogee, Okla., Dr. Coburn won no popularity contests with a principled assault on pork during his House tenure (1995-2000) that was ended by self-imposed term limits. He entered the Senate determined to keep a low profile, but that is difficult considering the Washington spending carnival under Republican rule.