Battling Cancer, Coburn Cutting Senate Career Short

The Republican lawmaker announced Thursday night that he will resign at the end of this year.

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.
National Journal
Michael Catalin and Josh Kraushaar
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Michael Catalin Josh Kraushaar
Jan. 16, 2014, 6:59 p.m.

Sen. Tom Coburn an­nounced Thursday night that he will be resign­ing his seat at the end of the year as he battles a re­cur­rence of can­cer.

“Serving as Ok­lahoma’s sen­at­or has been, and con­tin­ues to be, one of the great priv­ileges and bless­ings of my life. But, after much pray­er and con­sid­er­a­tion, I have de­cided that I will leave my Sen­ate seat at the end of this Con­gress,” Coburn wrote in a state­ment.

“As a cit­izen, I am now con­vinced that I can best serve my own chil­dren and grand­chil­dren by shift­ing my fo­cus else­where. In the mean­time, I look for­ward to fin­ish­ing this year strong. I in­tend to con­tin­ue our fight for Ok­lahoma, and will do everything in my power to force the Sen­ate to re-em­brace its her­it­age of de­bate, de­lib­er­a­tion, and con­sensus as we face our many chal­lenges ahead.”

Coburn was first elec­ted to Con­gress in 1994 as part of a wave of House con­ser­vat­ive firebrands swept in­to of­fice as part of that year’s GOP land­slide. Like many of his fresh­man col­leagues, he pledged to  serve only three terms. Un­like most of his col­leagues, he kept his word.

He re­turned to Wash­ing­ton as a sen­at­or in 2004, hand­ily de­feat­ing two prom­in­ent Re­pub­lic­ans for the nom­in­a­tion and a highly touted Demo­crat­ic con­gress­man who suc­ceeded him in the House. Dur­ing the cam­paign, he por­trayed him­self as a part-time law­maker, say­ing he was will­ing to put his con­ser­vat­ive prin­ciples ahead of his party.

In the Sen­ate, he was a cru­sader against waste­ful spend­ing. Be­fore op­pos­i­tion to ear­mark­ing be­came a cause celebre with con­ser­vat­ives, he vowed not to seek ear­marks early on in his Sen­ate ca­reer. He tried to re­move $5.5 bil­lion in what he deemed waste­ful pro­jects from the 2009 stim­u­lus bill and was an out­spoken crit­ic against the pres­id­ent’s health care law.

Coburn, the rank­ing mem­ber on the Home­land Se­cur­ity Com­mit­tee, also as­sembles an an­nu­al gov­ern­ment “Wastebook,” a com­pil­a­tion of gov­ern­ment ex­pendit­ures he views as waste­ful. The 2013 edi­tion iden­ti­fied $30 bil­lion in pro­gram ex­pendit­ures, in­clud­ing nearly $1 mil­lion to “ex­plore the fas­cin­at­ing, of­ten con­tra­dict­ory ori­gins and in­flu­ences of pop­u­lar ro­mance as told in nov­els, films, com­ics, ad­vice books, songs, and In­ter­net fan fic­tion.”

But Coburn has been an un­flinch­ing ad­voc­ate of his views, even in the face of con­ser­vat­ive back­lash.

Over the sum­mer, when Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah ad­voc­ated a strategy of de­fund­ing Obama­care even if that meant shut­ter­ing the gov­ern­ment, Coburn cri­ti­cized the ap­proach as un­real­ist­ic and un­likely to suc­ceed. Dur­ing the early stages of the so-called de­fund Obama­care de­bate, Coburn sat, legs crossed, at his Sen­ate desk listen­ing in­tently to Cruz and Lee as they ar­gued it would be Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id who would shut down the gov­ern­ment, not them.

Coburn dis­agreed em­phat­ic­ally, call­ing the tac­tic disin­genu­ous and say­ing it was doomed to fail. Polit­ic­ally, Coburn’s re­marks turned out to be pres­ci­ent, and the shut­down badly bruised Re­pub­lic­ans in Con­gress. Even as the be­hind-the-scenes Re­pub­lic­an squab­bling spilled onto cen­ter stage, Coburn kept to his small-gov­ern­ment prin­ciples. He still voted against the con­tinu­ing res­ol­u­tion that re­opened gov­ern­ment, ar­guing against run­ning the gov­ern­ment in such a ham-fis­ted man­ner.

Last year, he also gained at­ten­tion for his will­ing­ness to ne­go­ti­ate with Demo­crats on new gun-con­trol meas­ures in the wake of the Sandy Hook Ele­ment­ary School shoot­ing. But he was un­able to reach an agree­ment with Demo­crats, and the le­gis­la­tion nev­er passed.

This is not Coburn’s first battle with can­cer. In 2011, he un­der­went sur­gery for pro­state can­cer and was treated for colon can­cer earli­er in his ca­reer. In his state­ment, he at­trib­uted his resig­na­tion to his com­mit­ment to serve only two terms.

“I be­lieve it’s im­port­ant to live un­der the laws I helped write, and even those I fought hard to block,” Coburn said.

Ok­lahoma Gov. Mary Fal­l­in an­nounced Fri­day that the spe­cial elec­tion to fill out the re­mainder of Coburn’s term will be held this year, co­in­cid­ing with the reg­u­larly-sched­uled elec­tion dates on the 2014 cal­en­dar. The primary will be on June 24, any ne­ces­sary run­off will be on Au­gust 26, and the gen­er­al elec­tion on Nov. 4. The de­cision, backed by Coburn, will save the state money be­cause they won’t have to hold the spe­cial elec­tion at a sep­ar­ate time. Re­pub­lic­ans are heav­ily favored to hold onto his seat in a deeply con­ser­vat­ive state. 

Coburn missed Thursday’s vote on the $1.1 tril­lion om­ni­bus spend­ing bill. His col­leagues praised him for his in­cor­rupt­ible style and vot­ing re­cord.

“Tom­Coburn: without ques­tion one of the most in­tel­li­gent, prin­cipled, and de­cent men in mod­ern Sen­ate his­tory,” said Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell’s spokes­man in a tweet.

UP­DATE (11:20 a.m): Story was up­dated to re­flect the tim­ing of the spe­cial elec­tion.

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