Coburn: ‘Our problem in the Senate is the leadership’

Sen. Tom Coburn gives a thumbs up as he leaves the Jefferson Hotel after a dinner with President Barack Obama.
Sen. Tom Coburn gives a thumbs up as he leaves the Jefferson Hotel after a dinner with President Barack Obama.
Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images

By reaching out to rank-and-file senators, President Obama has tried to circumvent fruitless negotiations with congressional leadership and go right for the votes. Some lawmakers have applauded Obama’s renewed sociability, like Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), while others have signaled their unwillingness to negotiate without approval from the top.

“I think the president is tremendously sincere,” Coburn said on Meet The Press Sunday. “I don’t think this is just a political change in tactic. I think he actually would like to solve the problems of the country.”

Coburn, a self-described friend of Obama’s, attended a dinner the president held with twelve GOP senators at The Jefferson Hotel last Wednesday, and was confident the outing would “build relationships and a communication channel that’ll help get things done.”

Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.), who was also at the dinner, echoed Coburn’s optimism: “I think really what [Obama] is trying to do is start a discussion and kind of break the ice, and that was appreciated.”

But if getting things done means bucking party leadership, Johanns doesn’t seem as willing to play ball. “You can’t ignore the fact that the leadership plays a key role here—probably the key role,” he told Politico Sunday.

This highlights the larger problem with any upcoming budget negotiation: John Boehner and Mitch McConnell have been adamant about not raising taxes, and President Obama has been adamant that revenues be part of a deal. If rank-and-file senators are not willing to freelance, negotiations will remain at a standstill.

“The Senate’s not near as dysfunctional as it’s made out to be,” Coburn told David Gregory on Meet The Press, “because there’s great relationships in the Senate. Our problem in the Senate is the leadership of the Senate, not the members in the Senate.”

Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) doesn’t seem worried about defectors. When asked what the chances are of senators voting without the leadership’s consent, he said “zero.” He gave the same answer to a question about the chances of agreeing to a deal with higher revenues.

The White House will continue its campaign of outreach. On Tuesday, Obama will meet with Senate Democrats. On Wednesday, he’ll meet with House Republicans. And on Thursday, he’ll sit down with both minorities. The aim is a grand bargain, a FY 2014 budget that everyone can agree on, one which could eliminate the sequester, or at least give Obama the flexibility to make those cuts less damaging.

In the meantime, Congress has the Continuing Resolution to deal with–a bill to keep the government funded until October when the next fiscal year begins. The House passed their version last Wednesday, which locks in spending at post-sequestration rates in all areas but defense and veterans programs. The bill attracted criticism from House  Democrats for its neglect of domestic programs. Both parties will have to agree on a bill before March 27 if they want to avoid a government shutdown.

Coburn: 'Our problem in the Senate is the leadership'