WEB EXTRA: Republican senator has harsh criticisms of party

Republican Sen. Tom Coburn made sharp, though veiled, criticisms of President Bush’s performance and more directly reproached his party’s congressional leaders in a speech at GW Monday.

Without naming names, Coburn (Okla.) deplored Republicans’ actions on several hot-button domestic issues in a 20-minute speech to College Republicans in the Marvin Center Grand Ballroom.

Coburn, a party maverick who has a habit of skewering his colleagues and making controversial statements, was relatively tame Monday night. He said the United States has not faced the difficulties it is dealing with now since the early 1950s, and that “real leadership” is needed to fix domestic programs he characterized as faltering or failing: Medicare, Social Security and the post-Katrina relief effort among them.

“We ought to have leadership willing to stand on what they believe the truth is,” he said, warning the college audience, “You’re going to get saddled with our lack of courage, our lack of commitment.”

He lamented the recent addition of a prescription drug benefit to Medicare, which he called a “bankrupt program,” and the failure to make significant changes to the way Americans pay for and receive Social Security benefits.

In his speech he did not mention Harriet Miers, Bush’s latest nominee to the Supreme Court. In answering a student’s question, he avoided criticizing her, as some of his conservative colleagues have done.

Coburn called for the ascendancy of a politician in the mold of Ronald Reagan, whom Coburn said “put forth a positive vision and solved problems.” Coburn invoked the former president’s name a half-dozen times Monday night; he avoided mentioning President Bush and other Republican leaders, opting instead to criticize Congress as a whole and “other branches of the government.”

“The Republicanism of Ronald Reagan . is languishing,” he said. “I believe it’s lack of leadership, and I’m talking about my own party.”

Not surprisingly, some Republicans don’t look too kindly on Coburn, who as a House of Representatives member in the 1990s drew the ire of some party leaders. When Coburn was running for Senate last year, House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) said he doubted he would win.

Coburn also shows shades of quirkiness. A doctor, he has refused to give up his private practice in Oklahoma, flouting Senate rules. Since returning to Congress last year, he has resurrected his annual safe-sex slideshow, in which he shows graphic pictures of STD infections to Capitol Hill staff and interns.

On Monday night, Coburn zeroed in on leadership, urging College Republicans to keep a “positive vision for where we want to take this country” and commit to fiscal responsibility, personal responsibility and the spread of democratic capitalism. About 100 students attended the speech and question-and-answer session, part of the group’s speaker series that next month will bring former football star, congressman and vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp to campus.

“Leadership doesn’t mean you win,” Coburn said at the end of his speech. “It means you’re willing to put forth solutions to solve the problems.”

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