Now Dr. Coburn is Blocking Autism Research

September 22, 2011 12:49 pm ET — Jamison Foser

Sen. Tom Coburn

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) is so proud of his career as a medical doctor — during which he was accused of performing involuntary sterilization and committing Medicaid fraud — that his Senate office refers to him using the honorific "Doctor" rather than "Senator." Not that Coburn is always respectful of the medical profession: He once said he favors the death penalty for doctors who perform abortion. As a senator, Coburn's extraordinary efforts to block legislation (including health care reform and benefits for 9/11 first responders) have won him the nickname "Doctor No."

If it seems odd for a senator who takes pride in being a doctor to block legislation that increases access to health care, take a look at what Coburn is blocking now:

The Senate should follow the House's lead and pass bipartisan legislation that would extend federal autism research programs for the next three years, Rep. Chris Smith said Wednesday.

The Mercer County Republican's comments were directed at a small group of conservative senators — led by GOP Sens. Jim DeMint of South Carolina and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma — who are blocking an autism bill sponsored by Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J.

Smith, co-author of an identical measure that passed the House unanimously Tuesday, said a prolonged holdup in the Senate would slow research into the developmental brain disorder.

"There is very suggestive research as to what the genetic factors might be, what (are) the environmental factors," Smith told reporters. "But more research needs to be done — and the sooner the better."

DeMint and Coburn have placed holds on the legislation, reportedly because they oppose "disease specific" legislation — a complaint their fellow Republican, Rep. Chris Smith (NJ), does not find compelling:

[T]heir biggest objection is that Menendez wants Congress to pay for research into a specific ailment. If the Republicans don't withdraw their objection to what they call "disease specific" legislation, Menendez's bill won't come up for a vote.

Aides to Menendez and Coburn met Wednesday to work on a compromise, but Coburn and DeMint were maintaining their holds.

Smith said opponents raised the same objections to "disease-specific" legislation in 1999, when he introduced his first autism bill. But Congress eventually passed the autism-research measures, Smith said, proving that those objections are "yesterday's argument."

It may seem odd for Coburn, who regularly assails scientific research that uses federal funding in ways he doesn't like, to take the position that Congress shouldn't specify the purpose of research funding, but consistency has never been Coburn's strong point.