Sen. Tom Coburn is leaving virtually no one unscathed in a blistering new book in which he accuses both parties of hypocrisy and failed leadership in dealing with the country’s mounting debt problems.
Among the Oklahoma Republican’s top targets: tax activist Grover Norquist, whom he calls a “paper tiger,” the “feudal class” of party leaders, interest groups and congressional aides, all of whom he says are simply eager to stay in power. Coburn targets President Barack Obama for failing to fully embrace the Bowles-Simpson deficit commission and effectively blowing up the Gang of Six talks. And he goes after President George W. Bush’s “fiscal disaster” of an administration.
As he tears through the Washington establishment in his book, “The Debt Bomb,” Coburn also rips House Republican leaders for not doing more to cut spending, calling them “alleged budget-cutters,” and says Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has been “AWOL” on the deficit.
Above all else, Coburn pins everything to one big problem: Lawmakers in both parties who spend their careers in Washington trying to stay in power rather than making politically treacherous decisions on cutting entitlements and raising revenues. He says voters should eject about half of his Senate colleagues from office each cycle to “change the direction of the country.”
“Careerism — the philosophy of governing to win the next election above all else — is the root of almost all that ails Washington,” Coburn writes in his new book, which will be released Tuesday. POLITICO was provided with an early copy.
“Both parties today are putting their short-term political interests ahead of the country,” he writes. “Both present their positions as tough and principled to their respective partisans, but what we often see is posturing and false purity.”
And while Coburn unleashes his fury in many directions, he portrays Norquist — the creator of the anti-tax pledge signed by virtually every Republican lawmaker, including Coburn himself — as symptomatic of the worst of Washington.
Norquist’s power as head of Americans for Tax Reform is a “myth,” Coburn writes, and he points to the fact that the GOP had been willing to put revenues on the table in a Republican supercommittee proposal as well as eliminating tax expenditures for ethanol blending. He calls Norquist a “creature” of Washington worried about the Republican “brand” rather than the country. He calls it “pure stupidity” that Norquist wouldn’t accept a hypothetical deal to slice $9 trillion in spending with one additional cent in revenue.
Norquist has “spent the last two decades managing and manipulating the insecurities of career politicians in order to cultivate his image as a power broker and secure well-paying clients who want to protect their tax earmarks.”
In an interview, Norquist shot back, saying that Coburn had “lied” about his group’s position opposing ethanol tax breaks and that Coburn was trying to blame “someone other than the American people for their unwillingness to raise taxes.”
“He took the pledge — not to me, to the voters.”
Coburn’s book is remarkable because sitting senators rarely engage in full-frontal criticisms on their own party — let alone in an election year. But the senator who’s called “Dr. No,” is hardly your typical senator. He’s known for mounting political battles within his own party, including his repeated coup attempts to drive then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich from power in the late 1990s. He’s planning to fulfill a pledge to retire after his second term ends in January 2017.
Coburn, a 64-year-old former House member, obstetrician and all-around combative conservative, plans to soon take his message on a media tour with his book — in what he’s labeling as an urgent appeal to right the country’s finances before they resemble Greece’s as soon as 2014.
Coburn, who like Obama, was elected to the Senate in 2004, accuses Democratic leaders and the White House of not taking the exploding costs of Medicare more seriously and demagoging those who want to reform the elderly health care program as well as Social Security. And he attacks Democrats for seeking higher taxes on the rich and for failing to produce a budget to stem the growth of government spending.
But Coburn also directs much of the blame toward his fellow Republicans, something that could undermine the GOP’s argument as the party of fiscal responsibility in the middle of the election year.
In particular, he says many Republicans have not been aggressive enough in making real cuts to federal spending and have hidden behind their anti-tax mantra to avoid proposals to raise revenue by overhauling the Tax Code. And he reveals that he was lobbying Republican lawmakers last summer to allow the country to default by refusing to lift the debt ceiling in order to pressure Congress into a major deficit-cutting deal.
Some of his fights grew particularly heated with his fellow Republicans, like in 2007 when the late Sen. Ted Stevens blew up in an “expletive-filled tirade” after Coburn blocked a package of bills that would benefit his home state of Alaska ahead of his closely contested reelection bid.
Coburn demanded the bills be paid for, but the old bull senator was reportedly shouting at the Oklahoma senator, following him through the halls of the Capitol and warning he would retaliate by preventing every single Coburn bill from becoming law.
“Not one! Not one of your bills!” Stevens said, according to Coburn.
But even though he battled earmarks fiercely protected by Stevens and lawmakers from both parties, Coburn said he had a “warm rapport” with Stevens, to whom he would occasionally give boxes of cigars.
Coburn, who has proposed slashing budget deficits by $9 trillion over a decade with about $1 trillion in higher revenue mainly through eliminating tax deductions, has hardly the same rapport with Republicans like Norquist.
“As these talks continue, it is important for members of Congress to understand that Norquist need not be feared,” he writes. “Washington is a menagerie of paper tigers. None roar loader than Norquist.”
Asked about Coburn’s criticism that he’s a “paper tiger,” Norquist said: “It’s kind of like the kid who sends a 20-page letter to his ex-girlfriend and says he doesn’t care about her.”
Coburn also didn’t hold back in his assessment of House Republican efforts to cut spending, citing an incident in November 2011 when he believed that GOP leaders failed to effectively slice the price tag of their budget bills.
“The inability of alleged budget cutters to cut spending, along with their willingness to lie about it, was an eerie reminder of the Republican dysfunction of the late 1990s, when our leaders rationalized overspending for short-term political gain,” he said.
Michael Steel, spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), responded by saying that “of course” Republicans wish they “do more to cut spending — and we all know the Democrat-run Senate is standing in the way.”
Indeed, Coburn’s criticism isn’t just for Republicans. For instance, he criticized Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) for pushing for funding a 9/11 museum in New York without initially seeking ways to offset its costs, saying that “career politicians dare other senators to ‘block’ emotionally charged legislation and then refuse to do the hard work of making choices and setting priorities.”
Schumer spokesman Brian Fallon said that other museums of “far less significance” have been funded through the budget and that his boss is working in “good faith with ideas for offsets” and hopes to finalize a proposal soon.
And while Coburn boasts of a good relationship with Obama, he says the president prematurely embraced the work of the Gang of Six last summer and misstated its revenue targets, quashing its momentum and improperly used it as a “bargaining chip” in separate negotiations with Speaker John Boehner.
Amy Brundage, White House spokeswoman, dismissed the contention and said that the president has sought a $4 trillion deficit deal and is willing to “work with anyone — Democrat or Republican — who is serious about tackling this issue in a balanced way.”
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