The Oklahoma Republican, an outsider's outsider, has become an essential player on key issues because if the opposition can cut a deal with Coburn, an unassailable conservative, other conservatives will go along.
When Tom Coburn – the outsider's outsider, scourge of leadership, aka "Dr. No" – arrived in the Senate in 2005, the buzz along the marble corridors was that he just might torch the place. The reasoning went something like this: If his own GOP leaders couldn't control him in the House, how much more damage could he do in the clubby Senate, where individual senators have more power to obstruct?
In a sense, Mr. Coburn did not disappoint. In the Senate, he continued his storied lone-ranger assaults on "pork" projects, dear to lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and widely viewed as essential "grease" to pass legislation.
But he also defied expectations by becoming one of the rare lawmakers willing to make deals that cut across party lines. 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.
When Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York needed Republicans to work with a bipartisan Senate group on expanding background checks for gun purchases, he picked Coburn, a strong supporter of gun rights.
Moreover, unlike many members of Congress, Coburn is not intimidated by outside groups threatening to fund a primary challenge if he strays from the party line. He has pledged to step down at the end of his second term in 2016. He claims no loyalty to a political party.