WASHINGTON D.C. - U.S. Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK), who built a career out of fighting what he saw as government waste, has announced he will give up his seat after the current session of Congress and forgo the final two years of his term.
Coburn, who lives in Muskogee where he set up a medical practice after graduating from the University of Oklahoma Medical School, has been a U. S. Senator since 2005, and previously served as a U. S. Representative from 1995 to 2001.
"Serving as Oklahoma’s senator has been, and continues to be, one of the great privileges and blessings of my life," Coburn said in a written statement issued Thursday night by his Senate office.
"But, after much prayer and consideration, I have decided that I will leave my Senate seat at the end of this Congress," said the GOP lawmaker who focused most of his legislative efforts on cutting spending.
A few hours before his announcement, Coburn sounded an almost wistful note on the Senate floor about his constant battles to rein in the size of the federal government, an effort that was never fully embraced by lawmakers in either party.
"In my nine years here, I have failed in my ability to convince my colleagues that we ought to be worried about this problem," the Oklahoma Republican said.
After arriving in the Senate following the 2004 elections, Coburn took over the role that had been filled by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) for many years, as he tried to publicly shame members of both parties into cutting down on government waste and spending.
But like McCain, Coburn's efforts were not warmly embraced by many members of his own party, who resented his efforts on the Senate floor.
Until deficit reduction became "cool" around 2010, Coburn often had a difficult time rounding up 25 votes on the GOP side for a plan to cut spending, as he sometimes resorted to arcane parliamentary tactics to make his point.
In 2010, Coburn tried to use a procedural tactic on the Senate floor known as a "clay pigeon" to break one piece of a budget bill into 17 separate parts, which would have stalled action on the plan.
Coburn's decision to leave the Senate early came a few days after stories surfaced that he might not serve out his second term, which would run until after the 2016 elections.
Coburn had been tight-lipped about the issue in the hallways of the Capitol - his staff had almost seemed to go into a radio silence mode this week as well.
The news saddened Coburn's colleagues in the Senate.
"He's the kind of guy the founders had in mind when the Senate was created," said Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ).
"We may not always agree, but he's a good man and a good senator," said Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE), who added that he was praying for Coburn's health.
Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell called Coburn "a lasting credit to his beloved Oklahoma," labeling him "one of the most intelligent, principled and decent men in modern Senate history."
Tulsa Mayor Dewey Bartlett said "His presence in the U.S. Senate strengthens our country and uplifts our state. We will all miss his service, but we are forever grateful for his contribution and the legacy he will leave behind."
Coburn's decision means that his seat will come open at some point in 2015; a special election would be held to fill that remaining time.
In 2016, state voters would elect someone to fill the seat for a full six year Senate term.
Here is the statement issued by Coburn:
“Serving as Oklahoma’s senator has been, and continues to be, one of the great privileges and blessings of my life. But, after much prayer and consideration, I have decided that I will leave my Senate seat at the end of this Congress.
“Carolyn and I have been touched by the encouragement we’ve received from people across the state regarding my latest battle against cancer. But this decision isn’t about my health, my prognosis or even my hopes and desires. My commitment to the people of Oklahoma has always been that I would serve no more than two terms. Our founders saw public service and politics as a calling rather than a career. That’s how I saw it when I first ran for office in 1994, and that’s how I still see it today. I believe it’s important to live under the laws I helped write, and even those I fought hard to block.
“As a citizen legislator, I am first and foremost a citizen who cares deeply about the kind of country we leave our children and grandchildren. As I have traveled across Oklahoma and our nation these past nine years, I have yet to meet a parent or grandparent who wouldn’t do anything within their power to secure the future for the next generation. That’s why I initially ran for office in 1994 and re-entered politics in 2004. I’m encouraged there are thousands of Americans with real-world experience and good judgment who feel just like I do. As dysfunctional as Washington is these days, change is still possible when ‘We the People’ get engaged, run for office themselves or make their voices heard. After all, how else could a country doctor from Muskogee with no political experience make it to Washington?
“As a citizen, I am now convinced that I can best serve my own children and grandchildren by shifting my focus elsewhere. In the meantime, I look forward to finishing this year strong. I intend to continue our fight for Oklahoma, and will do everything in my power to force the Senate to re-embrace its heritage of debate, deliberation and consensus as we face our many challenges ahead.
“My God bless you, our state and our country.”