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Special Report

Senate Orders New Prescription for Senator

This is a partial transcript of "Special Report With Brit Hume," April 6, 2005, that has been edited for clarity.

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BRIT HUME, HOST: Before he was a politician, Tom Coburn of Muskogee, Oklahoma was, indeed is a doctor. And he continued to practice after he was elected to the House back in 1995. Last year, he was elected to the U.S. Senate whose Ethics Committee has now declared he must give up his medical practice to comply with Senate rules that are designed to guard conflict of interest or the appearance of such conflict. The senator joins me now.

First of all, tell me about your practice...

SEN. TOM COBURN (R), OKLAHOMA: I have an old-time G.P. practice; I take care of mommas and grandmoms and babies.

HUME: This is back in Muskogee.

COBURN: In Muskogee. Delivered a lot of babies. The six years while I was in Congress, I delivered 480 babies.

HUME: This is when you were in the House?

COBURN: While I served in the House.

HUME: Now, the House has a set of ethics rules.

COBURN: It does.

HUME: And how did this sit with those rules?

COBURN: The rules were is that you can't earn any money. And so what the practice...

HUME: You can't earn any outside money.

Right. To practice medicine you have tremendous malpractice costs today and a minimum amount of overhead costs. And the only way you can practice is if you can afford to pay those. So...

HUME: So even if you run to run a practice not for profit, you've still got to generate income to pay your insurance, pay your rent, pay for your equipment, pay your staff.

COBURN: About 150,000 to $200,000 a year to be able to do that.

HUME: And you will clear for yourself nothing out of that?

COBURN: Absolutely nothing. And that's what I did in the House and that's what I proposed. Actually, it was interesting. The Senate Ethics Committee, I never asked them about it, they wrote me a letter telling me I couldn't. So...

HUME: You mean got elected to the Senate, right? And then you got a letter. Had you expressed publicly intention to continue?

COBURN: Absolutely, all through the campaign. Every campaign stop I made in Oklahoma over a six-month period, I said I have every intention to continue to be a physician. Brit, it's...

HUME: Let me ask you why are you determined?

COBURN: Because the thing we miss in Washington is a connection with what's really happening at home. And to be a physician and a relationship with patients where you can see the hurt, the success, the problems, the complications, of everyday life in America...

HUME: Not to mention the babies.

COBURN: And well, the babies as well. But the fact is, as you get an insight that we're missing up here. And my time in Congress was made much more effective because I was a physician practicing at the same time I was a congressman.

HUME: One can see, I think, how someone who was practicing law might generate a lot of new business if he were in Congress. People wanting to curry favor with him as a legislator. Someone who was running another kind of business might be able to do the same. Cannot that be argued that you might generate a lot of new patient traffic if you were...

COBURN: Well, would somebody come to me to deliver their baby so they could influence my vote in the Senate?

HUME: Well, who knows? But I assume your argument is that first of all, you don't think anybody would do that. And secondly, you're not making any money off of it anyway.

COBURN: There's no beneficial gain for me, other than to be a better senator. You know...

HUME: So what did the Ethics Committee say exactly when you presented the same argument you presented in the House?

COBURN: Not moving. They gave me until September 30 to close up my practice. And...

HUME: So you're still -- so you're in the process of doing that, I presume.

COBURN: I'm in the process of trying to not lose this battle by taking it to the next level. And to try to put something on the Senate floor to say, wait a minute. Let's don't let this predisposition with absurdity allow us to lose the very intent of our founders of citizen legislators.

HUME: So what are you looking for an exception to be made, or amendment to the rules?

COBURN: An amendment to the rules. Or a sense of the Senate to say, you know, to practice medicine on a very, very limited basis so that you can maintain your skills, so that you can maintain your relationships with your district, should not be something that we should discourage. It should be something we encourage.

HUME: Is there a difference between the rules as they are written, any substantive difference between the House rules and the Senate rules?

COBURN: Well, with the direct mention of physicians is in the Senate rules.

HUME: Not in the House rules.

COBURN: It's not in the House rules it's just professional in the House. It's just professionals in the House, and so that would include physicians. So that's the only real difference. The difference that the committee has is on net compensation, versus compensation. So if I get -- if I earn enough money to pay my malpractice insurance and take care of everybody else for free, that's not acceptable to them.

HUME: That's not acceptable because it is...

COBURN: Because it's a form of compensation. And that you might be influenced by being compensated for delivering a baby that might influence your vote on the U.S. Senate.

HUME: Is it thought that there might be undue influence upon you from an insurance company, for example?

COBURN: Well, you're talking about a very limited amount of money. And you don't work for insurance companies. You work for patients.

HUME: So how are you doing with this campaign so far?

COBURN: Well, I'm going to work hard. I'm a fighter. I don't give up. I believe in the principle of citizen legislators. I believe in the principles of doing what's ethically right, not what it sounds right to the American public and through a law, because we reacted one time when somebody did something wrong.

HUME: What about that? How did this -- when did this -- what do you know about...

COBURN: This all came about with the Korean bribery scandal after post-Watergate.

HUME: Back in the 1970.

COBURN: Yes. And actually...

HUME: I remember it well. I covered that.

COBURN: ... physicians were included because Senator Strom Thurman was trying to kill it.

HUME: In other words, he thought if he put physicians in this, it would be so absurd that the whole thing would get voted down. But it I don't.

COBURN: Right. Right. It didn't. And of course, there's only two directors that have been in the Senate the last 50 years, myself and Senator Frist.

HUME: Where does Senator Frist stand in regard to all of this?

COBURN: Well, Senator Frist is supportive of my positions.

HUME: How does this relate to him?

COBURN: He practices outside of the country, so he doesn't have malpractice insurance.

HUME: So when he does all his practicing and doctoring -- when he administers to patients, it's always overseas.

COBURN: Yes. So there's not a large liability bill that's there in front of him.

HUME: What kind of practice do you have? I mean who are your patients?

COBURN: My patients are Medicaid patients, Medicare patients, a lot of indigent patients, high-risk obstetrical patients. I have patients with multiple sclerosis, bleeding disorders that are pregnant as well. And I've practiced for 22 years caring for the broad range of every aspect of people's lives.

HUME: And have you talked to members of the Ethics Committee about whether they would support such a change?

COBURN: I had limited conversations with the Ethics Committee because the Ethics Committee once you have something before them, doesn't want to talk with you. It's really rather strange.

HUME: It is indeed. Well, it's nice to have you Senator.

COBURN: It's good to be with you.

HUME: Luck to you.

COBURN: Thank you.

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