Nothing to win – the Coburn conundrum

In the Our Gang of Six, he may be Spanky – always trying to help his friends out of trouble while putting on a show of his disappointment in how Alfalfa and the other goofballs in the group keep chasing chickens.

Our Gang of Six - Tom "Spanky" Coburn makes a run for it.

First there was last week’s Senate Ethics Committee report on the questionable activities of former Sen. John Ensign (R-NV), in which Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) is said to have had a “support role” in the negotiation for the amount of money the Hamptons would take to make the scandal involving Ensign and Doug Hampton’s now ex-wife, Cynthia, remain under the covers.

Then, Tuesday, Coburn took a leave of absence from the so-called Gang of Six, the bipartisan group of senators involved in negotiations on a bill to extend the federal debt limit. “We are at an impasse,” the Senator told the press, “just too far apart on basic issues.” His reluctance to continue with negotiating is being labeled as – at best – a nebbish shrug he can make to his fellow conservatives, to make it look like, “Hey. I tried. They’re just stubborn liberals.”

What he actually reportedly said, was, “There’s no reason to sit and talk about the same things over and over and not get any movement.” Still, he left it graciously, kind of,”It’s not about bad faith,” he said, “it’s about being a realist about what you can accomplish and what you can’t.”

But other arch conservatives on the Senatorial G65 are sticking with the group, with continuing, cautiously diligent optimism. While Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) admits the group is “down to the few issues that are really the game-changers,” saying, “that’s when it gets tough,” he and the other four members are still willing to give it a try. “We’re going to hopefully keep working at it until we come to some resolution,” he said.

So what’s Coburn’s game, really? It could be that he bails when he smells partisanship, as he declared he was doing Friday, when he criticized the Senate Finance Committee for its public hearings on oil company subsidies. “The Senate seems incapable of producing serious solutions” to the deficit, he wrote in a press release, figuratively throwing up his hands at the entire political process, as he again seems to have done with the Gang of Six.

The other possibility is that Coburn has said he is in his last term as Senator, keeping a promise he made when he was first elected in 2004 to the upper chamber to only serve for two terms. “I will be through at the end of this term,” he assured Fox News viewers shortly after his re-election last year.

What that means is,not only does he have nothing to lose; he has nothing to win. There’s no money coming to you, trying to sway your vote, if you’re not up for re-election. Chambliss, Democratic Sen. Mark Warner (VA) and the other members of the bipartisan group know that as long as they are in the debate, they will be getting money from lobbyists trying to influence their political positions.

As Harvard Professor Lawrence Lessig put it, in one of his recent essays decrying the cycle of Congressional inaction as a means for raising contributions from lobbyists:

“Like addicts constantly on the lookout for their next fix, members [of Congress] grow impatient with anything that doesn’t promise the kick of a campaign contribution.”

Sen. Tom Coburn must feel odd these days,  standing there with his hands in his pockets while everyone around him is rolling up wads of cash. Even the Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee who were engaging in “another round of partisan hearings,” as Coburn stated, with Big Oil, are getting money from those same companies. The impatience is just a phase, Senator. Soon, you’ll accept that the money won’t be coming in anymore, and you’ll bide your time until 2016, when you’ll be looking forward to your next job – with a giant health care lobbying firm.


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