LEADING THE NEWS
Senator No is facing his toughest foe, Senator O
Posted: 09/15/08 08:07 PM [ET]
|Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), spurred on by activists and TV talk show host Oprah Winfrey, is planning round two against his nemesis: Tom Coburn, aka“Senator No.”
Reid’s office has sent word to Senate Democrats that it would like to bring the so-called Coburn omnibus bill to the floor soon, setting up a rematch with the conservative Oklahoma Republican who has often brought the Senate to gridlock.
Coburn won the last round, but this time Reid has Winfrey on his side. The daytime TV star, who draws 44 million viewers weekly, was not seen as much of a political activist until she threw her support behind Democratic nominee Sen. Barack Obama ( Ill. ).
Now Winfrey has squared off against Coburn, who has blocked S. 1738, the Combating Child Exploitation Act.
Winfrey asked her viewers Monday to call and write the Senate to demand their support for the legislation, sponsored by Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Biden ( Del. ).
Winfrey, herself a victim of sexual abuse, has asked viewers to sign and send a letter posted on her website calling for action on the bill.
Winfrey’s show is the top recipient of campaign advertisements after the leading news programs.
Coburn initially blocked it because it would have authorized nearly a billion dollars over eight years to fund a law enforcement crackdown on child exploitation. Coburn has insisted that new government programs be offset with spending cuts, a budget-saving device Biden’s bill lacked.
Coburn now wants Biden’s revised proposal paired with Republican legislation that would give law enforcement greater access to the online records of suspected sexual predators.
He questioned Winfrey’s political objectivity.
“I’m concerned that Oprah’s program only highlighted one half of the solution – the half supported by the presidential ticket she has endorsed. While I support the right of celebrities to use their platforms to advance partisan goals, Oprah’s viewers deserve to know all of the facts,” Coburn said in a statement.
Reid bundled the Biden bill with nearly 35 other bills that Coburn has used Senate rules to block into a package known as the Coburn omnibus.
Reid fell eight votes short of moving the package through the Senate in July. In a surprise, Reid’s aides have told fellow Democrats he will try again this week — a mere six weeks after Coburn successfully blocked it previously.
Coburn has threatened procedural tactics to block dozens of relatively non-controversial bills during the 110th Congress.
The strategy has proven effective because Democratic leaders are not willing to waste days of floor time filing motions to proceed and holding votes to cut off debate to pass bills that have little national name recognition but are nevertheless very important to smaller constituencies.
Reid decided to bundle these smaller bills into an omnibus package to marshal a broader coalition of support. That effort failed, however, in July, when Democrats, plagued by absences within their caucus, could not whip together enough votes to overcome Coburn’s opposition.
“Oprah’s viewers deserve to know that Senate leaders have twice objected to passage of the bill she supports. Senate leaders have insisted … [the bill] only pass if it is included in a package of unrelated bills that addresses less vital concerns such as the interstate commerce of non-human primates,” Coburn said.
Winfrey’s high-profile support of the Biden bill, an important component of the Coburn omnibus, will bring more attention to legislation that has received little national attention.
This may explain why Reid is willing to confront Coburn again so soon. The Democratic leader still must contend with the absence of Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), who is recuperating from brain surgery. It also may be difficult to count on Obama and Biden since they are traveling around the country in the midst of an intense campaign.
“Just because Coburn stopped it once, we’re going to give up?” said Reid spokesman Jim Manley. “We’re going to get it passed.”
Manley said the Senate has a lot of work to complete before its planned adjournment on Sept. 26 and warned that it’s not certain whether the bill will come up this week or next.
Manley said he did not know how much help Winfrey would provide.
“It remains to be seen what kind of boost her support will provide the package,” he said.
Winfrey has broad public influence. Endorsements by Oprah’s Book Club, for example, routinely put authors on best-seller lists.
Some observers, however, have questioned whether Winfrey’s popularity has dropped because of her forays into politics. Her daytime audience reached a high of nearly 9 million in 2004 and 2005.
Winfrey said on her show Monday that her advocacy had nothing to do with politics and that the anti-child exploitation bill had bipartisan support.
Since Coburn’s initial objection, Biden has pared down the cost of his bill to $320 million over the next five years.
Coburn has dropped his objection to the cost but still questions the efficacy of a new program if Congress does not grant law enforcement officials greater access to Internet service provider records that would help them trace online child pornography.
A Democratic aide said he expected that Coburn would object to Biden’s bill if Democrats tried to move it without also giving police greater freedom to monitor Internet activity.
Coburn has introduced his own proposal that combines Biden’s bill with legislation sponsored by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) that would improve law enforcement’s access to online data. But Democrats balk at the overhaul because they say it could infringe on civil liberties.
Coburn also suspects they don’t want to support a bill that includes a major component drafted by McCain, the GOP presidential nominee.
Ben Nunnery contributed to this article.