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Last Six

March 29, 2006

Sens. Obama, Coburn make unlikely duo

Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), a fast-rising leader in the Democratic Party, and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), whom conservatives view as one of their most principled spokesmen, have forged an unlikely alliance in the debate on lobbying reform.

Both lawmakers have played prominent roles in the legislative wrangling over how to address lobbying abuses in the wake of lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s crimes. Democratic leaders tapped Obama early on to spearhead the debate over reform, and Coburn has emerged as a leading critic of earmarks, teaming up with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in vowing to challenge colleagues’ projects on the Senate floor.

Coburn has co-sponsored all five amendments that Obama has filed for the lobbying reform package. Obama has crafted a range of proposals:
• A prohibition on paid coordination of lobbying activities.
• A ban on lawmakers’ negotiating future employment as lobbyists.
• A prohibition on advocating for earmarks in which the lawmaker has a financial interest.
• A prohibition on buying votes with earmarks.
• A requirement that earmarks be available for scrutiny during business days.

It is unclear when or whether the Senate will vote on the duo’s amendments. Senate leaders scheduled votes on two different amendments to the reform package yesterday afternoon and had hoped to finish consideration of it quickly.

The unlikely pairing of Obama and Coburn has raised eyebrows in Senate leadership circles and among other observers.

“That’s an odd alliance,” remarked a senior Democratic leadership aide.

But an aide to Coburn said that his boss admires Obama’s integrity.

“He has a lot of respect for him,” said John Hart, Coburn’s communications director. “He sees him as someone who has a good heart and principled and not mindlessly partisan. He sometimes finds it easier to work with a liberal Democrat than a Republican who isn’t true to his principles.”

Coburn has not flinched from taking on powerful lawmakers in his own conference. Most famously, he offered an amendment on the floor last year that would have stripped more than a hundred million dollars’ worth of funds for projects in Alaska, the home state of Senate President Pro Tempore Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), to defray post-Hurricane Katrina construction costs in Louisiana.

The daring move prompted an angry outburst by Stevens, who threatened to resign from Congress if the legislation passed.

In January, Coburn and McCain circulated a letter among colleagues warning them: “We are committed to doing all we can to halt this egregious earmarking practice and plan to challenge future legislative earmarks that come to the Senate floor.”

And last year, before the debate over curbing lobbying abuses heated up in the Senate, Coburn pushed for an essential component of the pending reform package. At least five times in 2005 Coburn introduced amendments requiring that earmarks be visible in a conference report or joint statement accompanying the legislation, a principle that has garnered consensus in the chamber.

Obama, too, has taken positions not popular with other members of his party. After being chosen as the Democratic point person on lobbying reform, he introduced a bill that would create an independent commission to enforce lobbying rules. Good-government groups such as Public Citizen and Common Cause endorsed the proposal as their top priority, but only two senators endorsed Obama’s legislation, Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.).

Obama has now thrown his weight behind the creation of an office of public integrity, headed by a single director, to enforce ethics rules. The Senate voted down the proposal yesterday.

But Obama has identified Coburn as someone perhaps more serious about reform than many of his colleagues.

“Senator Coburn is serious about wanting to clean up how we do business in Washington,” Obama said. “I’ve worked with him on a number of projects dealing with transparency and accountability.”

Still, Coburn’s work on lobbying reform has been largely behind the scenes.

Advocacy groups pushing for strong reform such as Public Citizen and Common Cause say that they have had little interaction with Coburn, who has also taken a relatively low profile in the media, but they add his fingerprints are apparent.

“His name keeps coming up all the time in all the meetings I’m going to,” said Craig Holman, a lobbyist for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch, referring to Coburn. “His name keeps coming all the time, so I presume he’s very active working with the senators.”

Good-government advocates said they assumed that Coburn was not serious about lobbying reform because during the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee markup of the lobbying reform package Coburn offered a set of farcical amendments to criticize the process. Coburn also was the only member of the committee to vote against the reform bill in committee.

“We didn’t make any efforts to contact Coburn because of the way he sounded at the committee markup,” said Public Citizen’s Holman, who added that Coburn’s alliance with Obama is “something that really surprises me.”

But Coburn’s aide said that the lawmaker was dissatisfied with the reform bill because it did not do enough to safeguard against future abuses.

“He felt like the product was tilted too much to public relations and not enough to substantial reform,” Hart said. “It’s not enough to create the appearance of reform, he wanted to have the substance of reform. Unless we rein in earmarks and the ability of lawmakers to manipulate the earmark ‘favor factor,’ as Abramoff called it, we’re not going to have real reform.”

Obama and Coburn have teamed up before. Last year Obama supported Coburn’s effort to create an office of chief financial officer to oversee reconstruction costs of Hurricane Katrina. In the House, Coburn worked with Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) on healthcare issues, perhaps providing a partial explanation for his friendly relationship with Obama. Obama’s legislative director is a former Waxman aide.

But an aide to Obama stressed that the relationship is personal. Their wives became friendly during the congressional orientation session that Obama and Coburn attended together after the 2004 election, the aide said.

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