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Oklahoma Doctor-Turned-Senator Juggles Jobs

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MUSKOGEE, Okla. (AP) _ It's a Monday morning and by 7:30 a.m, Dr. Tom Coburn already has put 2 1/2 hours on the job. He's made the rounds at the hospital. Now, expectant mothers and an elderly man with hardening of the arteries await exams at his clinic in a rambling strip mall. Lab reports sit a foot high in his office chair.

Midstride down the hallway, Coburn glances at his watch. If he doesn't leave his medical in his northeast Oklahoma hometown by 9 a.m., he could miss the flight to his Senate office in Washington.

The doctor is running out of time _ in more ways than one.

The Senate Ethics Committee has given Coburn until Sept. 30 to wind down his family and obstetrics practice after finding it violates Senate rules that limit outside compensation.

The freshman Republican plans to comply. But he also wants to change the rule that he believes ``creates a class of kings,'' contrary to the ``citizen legislators'' that the Founding Fathers wanted.

``I'm immersed in people's lives in a way most senators aren't,'' Coburn says.

The doctor's office reveals a man with feet planted in both worlds.

Medical books line the bookcase, along with a slim volume, ``How to Win an Election.'' A white coat hangs in one corner; campaign signs from last November's election lean in another.

His medical certification hangs framed next to a document confirming his election to the U.S. House.

Coburn delivered 480 babies while he was a congressman from 1995 to 2001. The House allowed him to practice medicine as long as he only took in payment enough to cover his roughly $200,000 in costs for staff and malpractice insurance.

He wants a similar waiver from the Senate. But rules there prohibit senators who are physicians and lawyers from receiving any compensation from a medical or law practice.

Changing those rules could put the Senate on a slippery slope toward undermining its credibility, said Larry Noble, executive director of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

``The rules are meant to stop the appearance and reality of a conflict of interest that may exist if you have outside employment,'' Noble said.

In a letter to Coburn, the committee quoted the late Sen. Strom Thurmond, who said when the rule was created in 1977: ``The first obligation of a professional is to his client; the first obligation of a senator to his constituency. Mr. President, we cannot serve two masters.''

Carlisa Rogers, a 31-year-old mother of three, said she believes Coburn can.

Nine months ago, Coburn delivered her twins by Caesarean section at 1:30 a.m., and appeared later the same day at a candidate forum in his contentious Senate race against former Democratic Rep. Brad Carson.

``He came in early at 6 a.m. or 7 a.m. to make rounds,'' Rogers recalls. ``I'm sure he went into that day with no sleep.''

Rogers said she chose Coburn as her doctor and later pediatrician because of his reputation and the fact she did not want an hourlong drive to see a specialist in Tulsa, the urban center closest to this city of 38,000. She knew his partners could fill in during an emergency.

Coburn specializes in high-risk pregnancies. He says the patients who come to him, many of whom are American Indians or on Medicaid, are not seeking to buy his influence. ``There is no conflict of interest here,'' he says.

During last year's campaign, supporters of Carson made an issue of a dismissed 14-year-old lawsuit from a woman who accused Coburn of sterilizing her without her permission. Coburn said the woman had an ectopic pregnancy, a dangerous condition in which an embryo was growing in her fallopian tube. He said he got permission orally to remove the tube and tie off her other fallopian tube, but that a nurse failed to get written consent.

Coburn says there is no conflict between practicing medicine and his public duties. If there is a trade-off, he says, it's between patients and participating in the ``golf tournaments and fundraising dinners'' of the Washington scene.

He said he spends 70 hours a week on Senate business and six hours to eight hours on medicine, which he fits in on weekends and Senate breaks.

``Sure it's (the Senate) a full-time job,'' Coburn says. ``But the fact is, the demands on your time in Washington are not that great.''

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., the only other physician in the Senate, sometimes volunteers his surgical services, including on trips to developing countries. Frist, however, has not sought compensation.

While the Senate Ethics Committee has refused to budge in Coburn's case, the Senate Rules Committee, led by Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., is looking at changing or amending rules on outside compensation. Susan Irby, a spokeswoman for Lott, said her boss would like that to happen but is not optimistic it will.

Coburn said plans to keep seeing patients for free because he has paid his malpractice insurance for 2005. But he says he cannot afford to do the same next year and will have to consider dipping into his wife's retirement if the rules are not changed.
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