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Tom Coburn Just Tried One Last Time to Fix the Broken Senate, and Here's What Happened


"I respectfully appeal the decision of the chair..."

In one of this final acts in office, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) on Friday tried to undo a Senate rule imposed by Democrats that has prevented Republicans from offering amendments to legislation for the last several years.

But Coburn, nicknamed "Dr. No" for his opposition to legislation that expands the government without finding spending cuts, was told "No" by his Democratic Senate colleagues.

Tom Coburn (Photo Credit: AP) Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) on Friday tried one last time to fix the broken Senate before retiring, but the Senate shot him down. (Photo Credit: AP)

Senate Majority Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has routinely blocked amendments by using up all available amendment slots, a process called "filling the amendment tree." Reid's procedural maneuver has led to complaints from both Republicans and Democrats, and in many cases it has prevented senators from getting any votes on their proposals for years.

For a while, Republicans were able to at least try to get around Reid's procedure by calling up a motion to suspend the rules, which would break Reid's grip on amendments and allow other ideas to be considered. But in late 2011, Reid forced the Senate to consider these efforts out of order, and from then on, senators have not been able to get around Reid's filling of the amendment tree.

On Friday, Coburn went to the floor to tell Democrats that he believes they will be treated better by the new Senate GOP majority, compared to the way Democrats treated Republicans.

"I'm not going to be with you, but it's my valid opinion, I believe, that you're not going to see the limitations on your amendments that we have seen the last six years," he said to Democrats. Coburn is retiring at the end of the current Congress.

So for the last time, Coburn tied to suspend the rules to allow for more amendments, and said if successful, he wouldn't try to add any amendments, and instead just wanted to change the precedent of the Senate. As expected — and in accordance with current Senate rules — he was told his motion was "dilatory."

"The motion to suspend the rules post-cloture is not dilatory, and on those grounds, I respectfully appeal the decision of the chair, and I request the yays and nays," Coburn said.

In the Senate, members are their own final judges of which rules stay and which rules go, and in a 55-45 vote, Senate Democrats rejected Coburn's request to change the final rules.

The precedent set by Reid is one of many that the new Republican majority will have to assess when it takes over next year. Another key rule change is whether presidential nominations should have to advance with a super-majority vote — Reid changed that rule to allow just a simple majority, over stern GOP objections.

Just before Coburn's request to change Senate rules, Coburn called up another motion to return the National Defense Authorization Act back to committee in order to remove language designating thousands of acres around the country as wilderness areas. Coburn and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) criticized the inclusion of that language as an attempt at a significant land grab, and said it has no place on the NDAA.

But Coburn's motion was rejected in a 18-82 vote in the Senate. The Senate passed the NDAA Friday afternoon in a 89-11 vote.

The huge authorization bill would allow a total of $557.1 billion to be spent by the Defense Department in fiscal year 2015, which matches the Obama administration’s request. Nearly $500 billion of that total would go toward base Defense Department operations, and another $63.7 billion would be for overseas war activities.

Coburn delivered his farewell speech to the Senate on Thursday, warned that senators need to do a better job protecting the Constitution.

"Can we do something better than has been done in the past?" he asked. "I honestly believe we can. But I don't believe we can if we continue to ignore the wisdom of our founding documents."

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