Interview with Senator Tom Coburn

Interview with Senator Tom Coburn

By John King, USA - December 3, 2010

KING: Some Democrats refer to our next guest as Dr. No. And they don't mean it as a compliment. Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma is a medical doctor and he routinely votes no on Democratic proposals to spend borrowed money. But today Senator Coburn is also under fire from some conservatives. He joins us now from Capitol Hill. Senator, it's good to see you.

I want to start with this debate about tax cuts and what to do with the Bush tax cuts due to expire at the end of the year. The Democrats in the Senate wanted to bring some proposals to the floor today. And my understanding is that you are the senator who said no and invoked your rights under the rules to delay that vote until tomorrow. Why?

SEN. TOM COBURN (R), OKLAHOMA: Oh, John, it really didn't have anything to do with that. It was more about how do we get in a strategy to where we can get out of here. It's an unfortunate occurrence, and that's about as far as I'll go with it.

KING: An unfortunate occurrence, the Democrats are still in the majority, they will be next year with a smaller majority. I want you to listen because this question came up; the Democrats are having a news conference about their strategy and a reporter asked Bob Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey, why are the Democrats bringing proposals to the floor that they know can't pass? Essentially saying you know the Republicans are going to block this, you know you can't do this, so why? Listen.


MENENDEZ: Do you allow yourself to be held hostage and get something done for the sake of getting something done when in fact it might be perverse in its ultimate results? It's almost like the question of do you negotiate with terrorists?


KING: Is that how you view this? Almost like the question do you negotiate with terrorists?

COBURN: Oh, I don't think so. And I don't really think his implication was that. You know the Senate is filled with a lot of different individuals and the whole goal is to try to do -- everybody's whole goal is to try to do the good things for America. And it's just one of those unfortunate times where we weren't able to accomplish that.

KING: Well, one of the things that is part of this divide -- one of the issues is to whether or not to extend unemployment benefits, extended unemployment benefits. They are due to expire for millions of Americans. We learned jut today the unemployment rate actually went up to 9.8 percent. Do you believe those Americans whose extended unemployment benefits are about to expire, do they deserve government help?

COBURN: Well I think certainly some of them do and probably the vast majority. But we also know there's a negative incentive. But let's say we extend them. Should we pay for them? Should we charge that money to our children or should we eliminate something else in the government that will not have a negative impact on the economy and help those people.

KING: Well --

COBURN: So the real question -- the real question is we're going to give compassion to those people who are unemployed, but we're going to deny compassion to the people who follow us. Specifically our children and grandchildren. And I don't think that is an adequate place to put our children. It's easy to spend their future away in the name of good things when, in fact, we have another option. And that is eliminating some of the $350 billion worth of waste and -- waste, fraud, and duplication I've outlined before.

KING: That brings us to the bigger issue that we wanted to speak with you today. You are a member of the president -- the president wanted this commission on deficit and debt reduction. It had its report today. It passed with a majority, but not the super majority it needed to force the Congress to take a vote in the House and the Senate. And you agreed you have said publicly I don't want to raise taxes. I don't think you have to raise taxes to balance the budget, but you were willing to say I'll have an open mind and support this report because I think this a big enough issue and we need to deal with it. So you were not going to let your ideology to reflexively say no. For that, what you have received you're someone who gets criticized often by the left as we noted. This criticism from the conservative editorial page of the "Wall Street Journal." "GOP senators and commission members Judd Gregg, Mike Crapo and Tom Coburn have endorsed the report on grounds that something has to be done. But this is the triumph of desperation over experience. Republicans won the recent election by opposing tax increases. And the fastest way to lose that majority would be to break that promise." Why is the right -- why are you getting criticized -- I think what you're saying is I want to have an open mind. Is having an open mind a crime in Washington?

COBURN: Well, you know, if, in fact, I'm doing my job right, I'll get criticized from every group from every angle all the time. And what I was sent here to do was -- first of all, the very real problem that's in front of us that's urgent, we need to get that platform with which to act on. And that was the attempt of the deficit commission. The deficit commission vote doesn't mean anything because we don't have 14 votes. Hopefully it's a basis where we can see some people starting to work together.

KING: And when you say that, again, I want to try to get you -- help me understand the politics of the moment. People on the left have said no, it touches Medicare and it touches social security. You're under fire now from the right because you have committed the sin of saying you at least keep an open mind about revenue increases, tax increases if it's the only way to get a broad deal that you think addresses the scope of the problem even if you don't like anything. And Americans for tax reform -- the policy director there -- tweets out this, "By agreeing to the Simpson/Bowles tax hikes, pledge breakers Coburn, Crapo and Gregg have admitted they lied about taxes to get elected." Did you lie about taxes to get elected?

COBURN: The hyperbole that the interest groups use doesn't need to be responded to. What needs to be responded to is I can have my position all day long. How good is that going to do for Americans for tax reform or the "Wall Street Journal" if we end up having to run a bond rate on American debt? What good does that do? And so I see the urgency of our position and the crisis that's coming is -- we can't wait for another election to strengthen our position.

KING: Well, you make that point. You just said the interest groups don't need to be responded to. But isn't that part if not a significant part of the problem that people on the left feel beholden to their interest groups and afraid to defy them? People on the right are afraid to defy them?

COBURN: Well, I obviously am not afraid to defy them.

KING: You're one vote, though, sir. How do you convince enough of your colleagues the country needs to be bigger? We need to take bigger steps even if it ends up we lose our jobs?

COBURN: I think what you do, you have to lead by example. Look, nobody has stronger conservative credentials than I do. It's not about credentials and not about the interest groups. It's about America, everybody, liberal, conservative, Democrat, Republican, whoever it is, are we willing to put everything at risk to maintain purity on our positions? Or should we be trying to solve this big issue? You know, if this was a small issue, I wouldn't move at all. You know, to my core I believe these things. But I also believe that our children and the generations that follow us don't deserve for us to take our positions and say we have to have 100 percent to be able to get a solution that gives them the same kind of opportunities we've had.

So I know that doesn't swallow down to the hard right and I'm sure Kent Conrad and Dick Durbin's position didn't swallow down to the hard left, but the fact is, we need some grown-ups leading on what is possible to solve this problem. And the problem, you know, think about what will happen if, in fact, the same thing happens to us that happened to Ireland and has happened to Greece and probably going to happen to Portugal. What happens to America? And we need to be worrying about preventing that. Do I think we should do things different than this report? Absolutely. But I didn't get a -- what I got a vote on was what came to the table. And it's better -- Kent Conrad had a fabulous statement. He's right. The only thing worse than supporting this is not supporting it.

KING: Senator Tom Coburn, we appreciate your time today.

COBURN: All right, John.


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