WASHINGTON – Most lawmakers dream of getting their names linked to legislation. That won't be so when the Senate takes up what is unofficially being called the "Coburn Omnibus."
It's a package of about 40 bills that have in many cases been single-handedly stalled by one of the Senate's more conservative members, Republican Tom Coburn of Oklahoma.
The package constitutes a showdown between Coburn, known for putting "holds" on legislation to slow their passage, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who is increasingly frustrated by GOP delaying tactics.
Republicans will have a choice, Reid said Monday on the Senate floor, to join the side of the American people "or continue to stand beside a colleague or two intent on blocking virtually everything."
Reid is expected to try to bring the package to the Senate floor later this week, setting up a possible vote on beginning debate in a rare Saturday session.
The bills in the package are mostly narrowly tailored, largely noncontroversial measures that have already passed the House and enjoy bipartisan support. But Coburn, and a small number of other Senate Republicans, have objected, arguing that they duplicate existing programs or add to the federal deficit. Coburn said they would create 77 new federal programs.
Under Senate rules, it normally takes unanimous agreement to take up legislation. One senator can stop that process with a hold. When that happens, it takes a supermajority of 60 to advance the bill to debate and a final vote.
Reid said the package will include the Emmitt Till Unsolved Crime Act, aimed at investigating unsolved civil rights era crimes; the Christopher and Dana Reeve Paralysis Act, a runaway and homeless youth bill; a bill to combat child exploitation by pornographers, and a measure to create a database for Lou Gehrig's disease. Many have Republican cosponsors.
Coburn said he supported the intent of many of the bills, but argued that by trying to force legislation to a vote without debate and the right to offer amendments, "we are doing great damage to the institution of the Senate."
He said that of 890 bills the Senate has passed in this session of Congress there has been debate on only about 50. The others were approved by "unanimous consent," with little or no debate and no roll call vote. "We don't want the American people to know what we would rather do in secret."
It isn't the first run-in this year between Reid and Coburn. In April Reid put together a package of 62 popular land bills, sidestepping Coburn's objections to some, and limited amendments Coburn wanted to offer. Coburn called the package bloated and unnecessary, but it passed 91-4.
Later that same month Coburn objected to a voice vote on a bill, sponsored by Reid, to study the relationship between breast cancer and the environment.
Coburn, a medical doctor, said his sister and sister-in-law both have breast cancer. But he said the government spends more on breast cancer research than on any other cancer, and scientists, not politicians, should decide priorities in health research.
"For those of you who may not know this, you cannot negotiate with Coburn," Reid said at a news conference last week. "It's just something that you learn over the years is a waste of time."
Coburn, speaking on the floor Monday, rejected that, noting how, after initially delaying action earlier this month on a $50 billion global AIDS relief bill backed by President Bush, he helped work out a compromise that satisfied most conservatives.
Coburn in turn took a swipe at Reid, saying he was "trumping on minority rights which are a sacred and central feature of the Senate that should not be violated."