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Coburn Freely Placing Holds

Senators, take heed: Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) may have a “hold” on your bill.

The freshman is using his power as a Senator to put a hold — or secret filibuster threat — on any bill he believes would create a new spending program, whether it is included in an appropriations bill or an authorizing bill.

That means that many a Senator’s home-state pet project could be held up indefinitely by a man known for sticking to his guns, even to the point of making enemies.

“I don’t think we ought to be passing new legislation, spending new money when we can’t pay for what we’re doing today, and we’re not willing to cut what we’re doing today,” said Coburn in a recent interview.

Asked whether he targeted bills going through just the committees he sits on — Judiciary, Indian Affairs, and Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs — or whether he has any specific criteria for measures he finds objectionable, Coburn said every bill has a potential bull’s-eye on it.

“I look at everything,” he said.

Indeed, Coburn spokesman John Hart said his boss is known for personally reading and marking up conference reports and bills, and his staff “is cross-trained to think oversight and examine bills.”

In addition, Coburn’s previous reputation in the House as a relentless budget hawk has caused many outside organizations “to come out of the woodwork” to tip off Coburn’s office to potentially objectionable bills and existing programs.

It’s unclear, however, exactly how Coburn came to place holds on four bills passed out of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee in March. Three were intended to address ocean monitoring, mapping and research in response to the devastating tsunami that killed as many as 200,000 in southern Asia last December. The fourth would create a program to track waste being dumped by ships into the ocean.

But because all four created new programs that would have committed the federal government to spending tens of millions of dollars on each, they apparently ran afoul of Coburn.

Though Coburn did not acknowledge putting holds on all four bills, but he did admit to putting a hold on one of Commerce Chairman Ted Stevens’ (R-Alaska) ocean research bills.

“It’s not about Ted Stevens,” Coburn said. “It’s about, if we’re going to spend new money then we ought to be able to say, ‘Here’s where we’ll get the money to pay for this,’ or we ought not to be doing this.”

Stevens said this week that after a conversation with Coburn, he believes he received a commitment from Coburn to lift the holds on all four bills. One was sponsored by Commerce ranking member Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) and another by Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine). “I think I got them all off. I’m not sure,” Stevens said.

However, Coburn’s office refused to confirm or deny Stevens’ assertion. Indeed, Hart said Coburn did not want to reveal the number of holds or the specific bills he may be delaying in the Senate at any one time.

“He thinks he can be more effective in preventing those bills from moving forward if he does it privately rather than if he did it publicly,” Hart said. “For every one he [announces] publicly, there may be 10 he does privately.”

Placing a hold is essentially “a threat to filibuster or talk at great length” about the subject, said Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.). “It’s a notification to the leaders that a Member wants to be notified if you’re bringing up” a bill or nomination, Lott said.

Lott noted that holds can be “a serious impediment” to getting bills passed, given that many bills in the Senate are passed by unanimous consent at the end of each legislative day during what is known as “wrap up.” In particular, many bills containing Senators’ pet projects or dealing with purely parochial state issues are passed by unanimous consent in that fashion.

Of course, occasionally Senators don’t want to come down to the floor to publicly oppose the bill or nomination.

“When I was Majority Leader, I’d call [the Senator with the hold] up and say, ‘I’m bringing this bill up. Get on over here and filibuster,’ and nine times out of 10, they didn’t show. I called their bluff,” Lott said.

So far, however, there is no indication whether Coburn is bluffing, and if so, on which bills. However, he expressed no reservations about telling Senators why he might find their bills objectionable. “If I think the legislation’s bad, I’ll tell anybody,” Coburn said.

Besides using the time-honored hold, Coburn has another platform in the Senate to air his views on wasteful and unnecessary government spending. As chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee on federal financial management, government information and international security, Coburn has been holding hearings on government programs that are alleged to be inefficient and wasteful. Given that, Senators aren’t even safe anymore thinking that their pet programs are protected because they’ve already become law.

“He’s elated to have a forum like this and plans to use it to its full potential,” Hart said.

Coburn has already held a hearing on President Bush’s recommendations to sunset most federal programs to force regular Congressional reviews as well as a hearing on what Hart described as a “corporate welfare program” that pays technology companies for research they would do with or without federal funds.

Today, Coburn is hosting a panel on AIDS funding in the United States. While Coburn, a doctor by trade, supports AIDS funding for communities around the nation, he is concerned that some states and localities are getting more money than they can use, while others are not getting enough, Hart said.

Lott said he wasn’t aware of Coburn’s plan to hold up myriad bills, but said Coburn is “genuinely and legitimately concerned about the size of the deficit.”

Still, during his more than 30 years in Congress, Lott said he has learned something about how to keep the likes of Coburn from stopping his pet projects from becoming law.

“The way I do it is, I fold them into bills where you can’t find it,” Lott said. “I’ve been around here long enough to know how to bury it.”

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