Tom Coburn, Republican ‘Dr. No’ to Senate Democrats, dies at 72

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Tom Coburn, the physician and Republican senator who became a nemesis to Democrats in the U.S. Congress for 15 years with his hawkish stance on government spending and conservative views on social issues, has died at age 72.

The Oklahoman newspaper in Coburn’s home state cited a statement from Coburn’s family that the former lawmaker died Friday night. The cause of death was prostate cancer.

Coburn announced his retirement in January 2014, effective at the end of the congressional session. He was being treated for cancer at the time.

The Oklahoma congressman, who served three terms in the House of Representatives and two in the Senate, became a symbol of Republican obstructionism, earning him the nickname “Dr. No” for stymieing the legislative process.

In 2008 he blocked almost 80 bills, more than any other senator, from being debated, according to the New York Times.

Then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat who frequently locked horns with Coburn, resorted to assembling more than 30 unrelated measures that Coburn had blocked, which he packaged into a single bill, dubbed the “Tomnibus.”

From abortion rights to mandatory employer-sponsored health-care insurance for workers, Coburn was seen by Democrats as a policy roadblock and by Republicans as a white knight to American taxpayers. He sponsored or co-sponsored more bill amendments than any of his colleagues, according to his website, and in 2006 he joined with then-Sen. Barack Obama to create an online database for federal spending.

Seven years later, Coburn was among a select group of Republican senators who dined at a lavish Washington hotel with Obama as the president unleashed a charm offensive in a bid to find a political compromise that would end a stalemate over reducing the U.S. budget deficit. Coburn was also critical of George W. Bush’s Republican administration in contributing to what he called the “debt bomb.”

“I have heard probably hundreds of speeches on the Senate floor blaming our economic turmoil on the Bush tax cuts and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he wrote in his 2012 book, “The Debt Bomb: A Bold Plan to Stop Washington from Bankrupting America.”

“President Bush does deserve his share of blame. In many respects, his administration was a fiscal disaster,” Coburn wrote.

While playing a spoiler role in Congress, Coburn managed to forge friendships with Democrats, such as Obama and New York Democrat Charles Schumer, now the Senate minority leader, with whom the Oklahoma senator worked as member of a bipartisan group on gun control.

He was also one of the so-called Gang of Six senators who cooperated in 2011 to reduce the budget deficit through a mix of tax increases and spending cuts.

“His colleagues — fellow Republicans and Democrats — liked to have him around, even though he could be a thorn in both sides,” former Bloomberg View columnist Margaret Carlson wrote of Coburn. “He was often the first to be asked to join the various bipartisan ‘Gangs of.’”

A proponent of premarital abstinence, Coburn led classes on the subject for staffers on Capitol Hill and, along with then-Republican Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, requested a federal study on sex education in schools in 2005. It found that condom use was promoted in curricula much more than abstinence. In 2002, President Bush appointed Coburn as co-chairman of his advisory council on HIV/AIDS.

Thomas Allen Coburn was born on March 14, 1948, in Casper, Wy. He was the son of Orin Wesley Coburn, an optician, and the former Anita Allen.

Coburn graduated with a bachelor of science degree in accounting from Oklahoma State University in 1970 before working as a manufacturing manager at the Ophthalmic Division of Coburn Optical Industries, his father’s business, in Colonial Heights, Virginia, until 1978. The unit grew from 13 employees to more than 350 under his leadership, according to his Senate profile.

After the family business was sold, he became a physician, graduating from University of Oklahoma Medical School in 1983. Coburn was an intern for general surgery at St. Anthony’s Hospital in Oklahoma City and did his family-practice residency at the University of Arkansas, Fort Smith. He specialized in family medicine, obstetrics and allergy treatments. He delivered more than 4,000 babies, he said.

Coburn served in the House from 1995 until 2001 before being elected to the Senate in 2004 and re-elected in 2010 with almost 71% of the vote. During his tenure, he was a member of Senate committees dealing with homeland security, intelligence and banking.

Coburn married the former Carolyn Denton, a graduate of Oklahoma State University and a one-time Miss Oklahoma, in 1968. They had three daughters, Callie, Katie and Sarah, who is an accomplished opera singer.


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