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Coburn Faces Blowback Over End-of-Session Blockade

(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Sen. Tom Coburn faced renewed criticism Monday evening over his blockade of bipartisan measures aimed at preventing veterans from committing suicide, improving energy efficiency and extending terrorism insurance.  

It was another lonely fight for Coburn, the Oklahoma Republican who is retiring early and has become something of a pariah to many veterans’ advocates. In this case, Coburn opposed the bill’s pricetag of $22 million worth of new authorizations without, he says, addressing larger issues at the Department of Veterans Affairs.  

“The VA has proven that questions need to be asked before it is entrusted with the lives of veterans or the money of taxpayers. The only way Congress can help the VA solve this problem is through rigorous oversight, to ensure the promises we’ve already made are being carried out,” Coburn said. “New programs and new funding is not the answer, but give false hope to those already suffering.”  

He said that he thought the bill itself just would not work, holding true to his earlier pledge against going out quietly .  

Shortly before Coburn objected to a motion by Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., to quickly call up and clear the bill, Majority Leader Harry Reid said the issue was dear to him, referencing his own father, a miner who committed suicide in 1972.  

“Twenty-two veterans will kill themselves. Every day. They don’t take weekends off. Seven days a week,” the Nevada Democrat said. “We need to stop this devastation.”  

“Suicide is very personal to me. As some of you will know, my good dad killed himself. So, the heartbreak that’s caused that the total loss — the inability to understand — caused by this needless, preventable death of a loved one is hard to comprehend,” Reid said. “The Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention Act is bipartisan legislation. The bill passed the House last Tuesday.”  

Coburn’s office has faced a barrage of criticism about holding up the legislation from veterans advocacy organizations, including Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.  

“It’s a shame that after two decades of service in Washington, Sen. Coburn will always be remembered for this final, misguided attack on veterans nationwide. It’s sickening to think another 22 veterans will die by suicide today and every day we fail to expand mental health care for our vets. While we appreciate the many Senators who have stood up to support our bill and our nation’s veterans, we join them in expressing our dismay that Senator Coburn would block this fiscally responsible bill,” IAVA CEO and Founder Paul Rieckhoff said in a statement. “While we recognize Senator Coburn’s reputation as a budget hawk, clearly the minor cost of this bill would have a tremendous payoff to help save lives in our community.”  

That wasn’t the end of Coburn making floor objections for the day. He also held up a House-passed energy efficiency bill that was a scaled-down variant of Senate legislation drafted by Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and GOP Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio.  

Energy and Natural Resources Ranking Member Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who has long advocated for advancing energy efficiency legislation, said that the so-called Shaheen-Portman measure could be called a “Groundhog Day bill” for its repeated appearances on the Senate floor.  

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., told CQ Roll Call late Monday that Coburn also was continuing to delay movement on reauthorizing the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act, which is one of the few remaining major items on the to-do list for the Senate. Schumer wouldn’t speculate as to whether Democrats were prepared to burn all the time that could be required to get the measure passed notwithstanding Coburn’s objections.  

The news was much better for the reauthorization of the Sen. Paul Simon Water for the World Act. In the case of that measure, Senate aides said Coburn withdrew his objection on that measure, which the Senate cleared for President Barack Obama’s signature just before adjourning Monday evening.  

Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., and Foreign Relations Ranking Member Bob Corker, R-Tenn., were its lead Senate supporters.  

“Inadequate access to safe water and sanitation services sickens and kills thousands of children every day, and leads to poverty across the globe,” Durbin said in a statement. “But this is no longer simply a global health and development issue — it’s a long-term problem that increasingly threatens our national security. The Senate agreed unanimously and passed this legislation today and I hope the President will quickly sign it before the crisis reaches a devastating tipping point.”  

The Senate’s extended schedule will give other such measures that have already passed the House with broad, bipartisan support a final chance to overcome procedural hurdles before the 113th Congress departs for good, sine die.  


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