Coburn threatens to block all spending bills in Senate that aren't 'paid for'

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) on Tuesday vowed to block all future spending bills in the Senate that aren’t fully “paid for” with cuts to other spending programs.

Coburn and other Republicans are already blocking a $9 billion bill to extend jobless benefits for 30 days that isn’t offset with other spending cuts. That impasse halted benefits to 200,000 unemployed people this week.

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In a phone interview with The Hill, Coburn said he would “absolutely” object to any other spending measure that isn’t funded.

“The fact is that the country wants us to start making hard choices on spending, and if we can’t do it on a $9 billion bill, then we’re certainly not going to be able to do it on our $1.6 trillion deficit,” he said.

“The problems are so severe in our country, our debt is so severe and the impact is so great in the near and long term that it’s time for some of us to take a stand. We may lose. But we’re not going to give up on doing the tough things that Washington needs to do, and if that earns us consternation, so be it.”

Coburn has a well-known penchant for holding up Senate bills — notably tangling with Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) in 2008 over a large lands bill package that he objected to — but his vow Tuesday represents a more expansive approach. 

He has twice sent a memo to fellow senators notifying them that he planned to object to any spending bills that are “hotlined” in the Senate, or passed by unanimous consent, without being paid for, but has previously stopped short of blocking all unfunded spending bills.

Democrats argue the extension of unemployment benefits should be considered “emergency spending” that does not have to be offset with other spending cuts or tax increases. They also believe they are scoring political points against the GOP because of this week’s gap in benefits. 

Coburn cast doubt on any political backlash against the GOP over the issue, noting that when an unemployment extension is passed, it will include retroactive benefits for those who apply.

He argued voters will support the GOP given concerns about the deficit.

“The easiest thing in the world is to pass this bill unpaid for, but consider the millions of Americans whose financial futures would be damaged, versus the relatively small amount of people who will be affected by this delay. Now you tell me which vote takes the most courage.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has already filed a cloture motion on the benefits bill, and a vote is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. on Monday. Various delays required by the cloture process mean the bill won’t get a final vote until Thursday, unless the two parties reach an agreement for an earlier vote.

A separate bill that would provide a longer-term extension of the benefits until the end of the year has already been passed by both the House and Senate, but is awaiting conference action to reconcile differences between the two versions.

Coburn has spent much of the past two weeks taking his message to town hall forums around Oklahoma. 

At a town hall meeting in Mayes County, where the unemployment rate of 9.7 percent mirrors the national number, Coburn defended his decision.

“The bill that’s out there is going to charge your grandchildren rather than eliminate wasteful, ineffective and insufficient programs,” he said, as reported by a local ABC TV affiliate.

Coburn told The Hill he’s disappointed with press coverage of his position, saying the media should focus on the fact that Democrats adopted a requirement that spending bills be paid for, yet frequently disregard the rule.

“That’s what the story ought to be,” he said. “If you’re going to spend new money, pay for it. And they haven’t paid for a thing … As soon as I decided to do this, I knew the press would be against this. That’s just a fact of life in Washington. We have a biased press.”

Coburn’s vow came a day after Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) re-entered the debate by issuing a statement blaming Democrats for the lapse in benefits. Bunning single-handedly blocked an earlier extension of the benefit last month, but backed down after a successful Democratic counterattack that portrayed Republicans as careless obstructionists.

Democrats will need at least one Republican to cross the aisle to move the unemployment bill. Republicans such as Susan Collins of Maine and Scott Brown of Massachusetts are among the potential crossover votes. Collins was critical of Bunning’s move last month, and Brown crossed the aisle to support a Democratic jobs bill in February.

The offices of both senators said Tuesday that they are open-minded to supporting an extension, but both expressed concern over how it would be funded.

“Sen. Brown believes it is important for colleagues on both sides of the political aisle to work together next week to come up with a fiscally responsible way to extend unemployment benefits without adding to the national debt,” said Brown spokesman Colin Reed.

Democratic leaders on Tuesday continued to lay the blame for the lapse in jobless benefits at Republicans’ feet, denying any potential deal had been reached before the recess and reminding observers of Bunning’s actions last month.

“It’s pretty clear what they’re doing here is following the lead of Sen. Bunning,” said a senior Democratic aide. “And they were perfectly happy to vote for the Bush tax cuts that were unfunded.”