Sen. Coburn Says He Can Keep Birthing Children Despite Ethics Committee Opinion

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Republican Sen. Tom Coburn, who has drawn ire from Democratic leaders in the Senate for blocking a number of bills, is also in the crosshairs of the Senate ethics committee for his continuing to practice his profession of delivering children.

Coburn is a family practice physician who specializes in obstetrics, but the ethics panel has told the Oklahoma senator he can no longer practice at the main hospital in his home town, Muskogee, because it is run by a for-profit organization.

Coburn spokesman John Hart told that the ethics panel has wrongly interpreted Coburn's work as an endorsement of the Muskogee Regional Medical Center, a position Hart said is "asinine."

Coburn has said he'll keep doing what he's doing.

According to a series of letters between the two parties, the ethics panel has claimed Coburn is violating a conflict-of-interest rule that bans senators from affiliating "with a firm, partnership, association or corporation for the purpose of providing professional services for
compensation; (2) (permitting) that individual's name to be used by such a firm, partnership, association or corporation; or (3) (practicing) a profession for compensation to any extent during regular office hours of the Senate office in which employed."

Letters in the inquiry are signed by both Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and John Cornyn, R-Texas.

Coburn has been allowed to practice medicine under an agreement that he not receive any money for it, and that he pay for costs incurred to the hospital. It is an agreement similar to one he had when he served in the House, although others have given up their work while in the Senate, including former Majority Leader Bill Frist.

Hart said the argument of an ethical violation falls flat because it's the only major hospital in Muskogee, and "when a woman goes into labor, she's not going to go to a hospital depending on whether a senator's endorsed it."

Hart added that questioning the ethics of Coburn's work at the hospital is similar to saying millions have seen the latest Batman film because Sen. Patrick Leahy's cameo appearance or House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's appearance at a book store is an endorsement of the book store.

An ethics committee spokesman said it is committee policy not to comment on matters before the panel.

Hart said Coburn has delivered more than 3,000 children in his career, but in recent years the rate has slowed to a few dozen annually. Coburn has said he wants to keep practicing medicine so he can maintain his skills for when he no longer is in the Senate.

In the memos, the committee told Coburn he could practice at a number of other Oklahoma clinics that either are government-run or free, some of which are in Muskogee. The committee also demanded that Coburn cease delivering babies by June 22.

Asked if Coburn had delivered any babies since then, Hart, in an e-mail, said he "can't comment on that." Coburn would not answer that question directly either when it was posed by Politico Web site.

It's not clear whether the issue will go further or not, but Hart said it could, especially considering the fact that Coburn already has been targeted by Democratic leaders. Shortly before Congress broke for its summer break, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid put together a package of bills that Coburn had single-handedly blocked.

The bill didn't pass muster, but it's unlikely the end of Coburn's tangling with Democrats, Hart said.

In his last letter to the ethics committee on June 17, Coburn showed confidence he will prevail.

"I continue to believe that I am currently in compliance with all Senate rules," Coburn wrote, suggesting he'll continue to practice because the way the committee interprets the difference between public and private hospitals "would make it impossible, as a practical matter, for doctors to serve in the United States Senate.

"As I’m sure you can appreciate, patient safety must be a doctor’s first priority," he wrote.