For years, the dealmakers in the Senate had been the moderates whose swing votes could tip the outcome in a divided chamber. Over time, the centrists were defeated or, weary of the gridlock, resigned.
Coburn, the un-centrist, is reversing the pattern. What makes him an essential player on issues like debt limits, spending, entitlements, taxes, and even gun control is that his conservative credentials are unassailable. Cut a deal with a conservative as firmly fixed as Coburn, and other conservatives have cover to go along.
... Coburn also developed a staff with a capacity for investigation and oversight. Over time, Coburn Inc. became a clearinghouse for data on how government programs worked, or, as Coburn puts it, "methodically and relentlessly building the case for limited government." His profile took a turn from maverick extremist to statesman in 2005, when he challenged an earmark for the "bridge to nowhere." The $453 million project for two bridges in Alaska was backed by the former chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, who threatened to resign if Coburn won a floor vote to remove the funding. Coburn lost, 82 to 15, but the fight captured public attention. "Bridge to nowhere" became shorthand for a useless government project. Congress later rescinded the earmark.
Coburn stepped up his fight, threatening to force "thousands of votes" to eliminate pork projects. Through it all, he was winning converts. In 2011, the House banned earmarks, and the Senate suspended the practice.
But what has made Coburn a go-to lawmaker for Democrats is the possibility that he can rally conservatives to support a "grand bargain" on debt reduction – the great drama of the second Obama term. In 2011, Coburn stunned many colleagues by beginning an assault on what he called pork spending in the tax code, such as a $6 billion annual subsidy for ethanol blenders.