Coburn Loses Battle of Bridges

The Senate voted overwhelmingly last night, 82-15, against Tom Coburn’s proposal to kill the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere” and divert the money to rebuilding the New Orleans-Slidell bridge. But not before some theatrics.

Senate Comes to Halt in Battle of Bridges (AP)

In a clash of generations and political philosophy, 37-year Senate veteran Ted Stevens of Alaska told a freshman colleague that he would resign and “be taken out of here on a stretcher” if the Senate killed funding for two Alaskan bridges. “It is an offense, a threat to every person in my state,” the 81-year-old Stevens said of the proposal by fellow Republican Tom Coburn of Oklahoma to eliminate some $450 million in federal funds for Alaskan bridges and shift $75 million to a Louisiana bridge damaged by Hurricane Katrina.

The dispute temporarily brought the Senate to a halt as Republican and Democratic leaders sought to intercede between Stevens, the Senate Pro Tempore who is renowned for winning projects for his state, and Coburn, who was elected to the Senate last year on a platform of slashing the size of government and ending old-school porkbarrel spending.

The Senate later rejected the Coburn measure, 82-15. It also turned down a Stevens counterproposal to hold up spending for all bridges around the country until the Louisiana bridge is funded, by 61-33.

Coburn, in debate over a spending bill covering transportation and housing programs, targeted two Alaskan bridges that were cited by fiscal hawks as the worst examples of unwarranted spending in the massive highway bill signed by the president this year. One, called by critics the “bridge to nowhere, would connect Ketchikan, Alaska, to an island where there is an airport and about 50 people. The highway bill allotted $223 million for that project and $229 million for another bridge near Anchorage.
“We find ourselves in significant difficulties as a nation,” Coburn said, referring to the massive costs of hurricane relief and the mounting federal deficit. The Alaska bridges, he said, “are very low on the totem pole” of national priorities.

But in the tradition-bound Senate, Coburn was taking on an unwritten rule that one senator does not attack the projects sought by another. “I’ve been here now almost 37 years,” Stevens said. “This is the first time I have seen any attempt of any senator to treat my state in a way different from any other state.” “I don’t kid people,” he said. If the Senate decides … to take money from our state, I will resign from this body.”

Stevens’ shamelessness knows no bounds. But at least he is doing what he is sworn to do: fight for his constituents. That the Republican leadership didn’t line up behind Coburn–and even Democrats feared voting against the monstrosity–is perhaps the best argument for term limits imaginable. It is simply political suicide to go against someone with Stevens’ seniority, especially when he chairs the king of all pork committees.

Mark Tapscott, who had hoped this would pass and usher in a new era of fiscal responsibility, was obviously disappointed:

The Coburn amendments would have repealed $500,000 previously authorized for a sculpture park in Seattle, Washington, $200,000 to build an animal shelter in Westerly, RI, and $200,000 to build a parking lot in Omaha, Nebraska, and re-directed the funds to help pay instead for Hurricane Katrina recovery.

It appears the majority of senators think it is more important to shelter dogs and cats in Rhode Island than people in Louisiana and Mississippi made homeless by Hurricane Katrina.

Sadly, it’s worse than that. At least that would be voting on important matters of public policy by weighing priorities. Instead, we had supposedly equal Senators cowering at the power of an 81-year-old man from the least populous state in the Union.

DailyKos lists the names of those voting Yay. The brave fifteen:

    Allen (R)
    Bayh (D)
    Burr (R)
    Coburn (R)
    Conrad (D)
    DeMint (R)
    DeWine (R)
    Feingold (D)
    Graham (R)
    Kyl (R)
    Landrieu (D)
    Sessions (R)
    Sununu (R)
    Vitter (R)

These aren’t exactly the fifteen most conservative Senators making a stand, either. With a couple of exceptions for the notoriously cantankerous, these are mostly very junior Senators. A whole lot of reliable conservatives were afraid to put their name on this list and see their highway funds mysteriously vanish.

Additionally, as Heritage’s Ron Utt notes, the Senate plays by some rather archane rules:

In opposing Senator Coburn̢۪s amendment to defund the bridge, one prominent Senator told a closed-door meeting of conservatives that the plan was simply impractical. Many of the earmarks, he claimed, are counted towards a state̢۪s equity bonus and thus are part of the state-by-state allocation formula. Defunding the bridge, he said, would direct at most $75 million to Louisiana, with the remaining $148 million returning to Alaska as money the state could use at its discretion for road projects. (Update: Patty Murray was also threatening from the Appropriations Committee.)


Perhaps recognizing that the citizens of Alaska, including many in Ketchikan, do not value the Gravina Island bridge project, its defenders have been forced to resort to threats. One House “Leadership staffer suggested that retribution could be levied for the removal of the project in a technical corrections bill or other measure,†BNA reported.

It’s clearly time to have a major rewrite of the rules. The spotlight is on, briefly at least. Heck, even DailyKos was behind this one. We’ll see if there is any sustained public outrage that turns a lot of the bums out next November. Frankly, I seriously doubt it.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. DL says:


    How do you spell “pork barrel Coburn?


    “Robert Byrd”

    Are there really all those differences between parties?

    Is there a kind of people that could run the country, other than politicians?

    It chills my spine to walk into a voting booth these days, when even the best choice is so undesirable.

  2. Herb says:

    I looks like our glorious senators are improving their recumes for a future job with the UN.

    There is no difference between the useless Senate and the useless UN.

    Shame, Shame, Shame on the Senate and every senator who voted this measure down.

  3. Mark says:

    I would have at least expected Lott and Cochran to vote for this. Shelby too. At least Sessions had the guts to vote yes.

    I am disappointed to say the least.

  4. James Joyner says:

    Shelby is a pure politician without much in the way of principle. Hell, he was a Democrat until the Republicans took over in 1995 and then, suddenly, he decided his old party had left him. Lott, too, is a political hack.

    There’s not much profit in voting for a measure on principle when it’s not even close to having enough support to pass.

  5. McGehee says:


    How do you spell “pork barrel Coburn?


    “Robert Byrd”

    Coburn? I think you mean Stevens. And Byrd’s not even in Ted’s league.

  6. bufict says:

    It’s a sad day in America, when slime like this happen’s. What happen to the common decency of human kind? How do you justify telling your kid’s to vote for these bozo’s. Yes Bozo’s.