Students join political protest- in Oklahoma

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Students traveled to Oklahoma City to protest.

Tristan Hallman

Update appended

Five students from St. Edward’s University recently drove from Austin to spend their weekend in Oklahoma City outside the office of a senator who is blocking a little-known bill dealing with a little-known war in a country in Africa.

But to these students and many others, there was nothing more important than this issue, this senator’s objections and this piece of legislation.

The legislation, known as the “LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act,” would authorize $40 million to fund assistance for the victims of the ongoing battle against an indicted war criminal’s rebel army in Uganda.

The senator is U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., an obstetrician-turned-politician bestowed with the nickname “Dr. No” for constantly blocking spending bills. He is the only senator standing in the way of the bill’s passage.

The students are sophomores Karissa Eudy and Caitlin Berry and freshmen Ashton Robison, Patrick Dunlap and Kim Valmores, members of the group Invisible Children. The group seeks to bring an end to the conflict in Uganda and is named for the child soldiers used in the war. The university has partnered with Invisible Children several times to present films and guest speakers.

The weekend prior, freshmen Tiffany Rogers, Esteban Olave and Noah Anders joined Dunlap and Robison on the six-hour drive to participate in the first weekend of protests.

The Protest

Eudy, a member of Invisible Children for five years, said the group went to the protest in an effort to push Coburn into a compromise on the bill.

“He is using this bill to make a point,” Eudy said. “He is not at all focused on the issue at hand.”

Eudy drove her fellow students to the protest. During the day, the protesters wrote letters to Coburn, Coburn’s constituents in Oklahoma and to other representatives in Congress to put pressure on Coburn to remove his objections.

At night, protesters slept on the street in the 20 to 30 degree weather in sleeping bags.

“I saw it as one of the most invigorating and exhausting experiences of my life,” Robison said.

The group said that the protesters received a positive reception from the locals. Eudy said many people even brought the protesters breakfast and joined in by making phone calls to Coburn’s office. Eudy attributed the positive reception to the way the protest was conducted.

“The way we went about it was very peaceful,” Eudy said. “We were present, but we weren’t annoying.”

Dunlap said that it was also nice to meet fellow protesters.

“We met so many awesome people there,” Dunlap said.

Faith-based groups have also joined in the protest against Coburn, who himself is a devout Christian.

“Dr. No” and the bill

Coburn is blocking the bill by objecting to unanimous consent. While he said he supports the initiative, he said he objects unless the Senate finds a way to pay for the $40 million bill through spending cuts elsewhere.

Coburn has thus far rejected bipartisan overtures to remove his hold from the bill, which includes holding off the actual appropriation of the money until a later date when offsets might be made. If Coburn removes his objections, the bill will still have to pass through the House of Representatives before the bill makes it to President Obama’s desk.

Unanimous consent is a quick way in which the Senate passes bills that are not controversial to avoid the time-consuming process of a full Senate vote.

Coburn’s colleague, U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., recently took a similar tact on a bill that would extend unemployment benefits. However, the bill that Bunning targeted would cost $10 billion, 250 times more than the Uganda bill.

Coburn’s opposition has drawn criticism from fellow conservatives in the Senate. However, Coburn is no stranger to clashing with other conservatives. After he was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1994, he regularly clashed with Republican leadership.

“We respect his policy of fiscal responsibility, and it is a good thing because our country is in a lot of debt,” Eudy said. “This is not an anti-Sen. Coburn movement at all. We just want him to be able to compromise.”

Eudy said this is the most attention the U.S. government has given to the war in Uganda. Coburn did take on Ugandan policy in December 2009 when he spoke out against a proposed Ugandan law that would impose criminal penalties on gays, including the death penalty.

Continued pressure

The protesters are hoping that the pressure will force Coburn to change his position on the bill. He has already agreed to take a phone call from the protesters, who are also looking to collect 15,000 signatures on a petition.

“I still wish I could be there right now,” Robison said.

Even if the call with Coburn does not work out, Dunlap said that the protesters are determined and gaining momentum.

“It’s going to work,” Dunlap said. “We are going to be out there until they do something about it.”UPDATE: It did work. Coburn accepted a compromise and has removed his hold on the bill. In a conference call Tuesday afternoon, Coburn congratulated the protesters and thanked them for going about the demonstrations in a civil way. Dunlap watched the call live over the Internet, and said that he immediately received celebratory calls from fellow protesters. “I’m just amazed that I was able to be a part of this experience and it actually worked,” Dunlap said. “It’s great that a group of people can get together and unify to make difference on one cause like this.” Dunlap said that he is happy not to have to make another trip to Oklahoma, but that he will miss the people that he met there. The bill is likely to pass through the Senate unless another senator places last-minute objections. From there, it will move the House of Representatives for a vote.

 

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