Bob Corker’s High-Wire Act

Corker, right, is leading a GOP effort to extend the Highway Trust Fund. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Corker, right, is leading a GOP effort to extend the Highway Trust Fund. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted July 31, 2014 at 5:00am

Sen. Bob Corker is out on a limb. Or maybe more than one.  

The Tennessee Republican, who called himself “just an old policy guy” Wednesday morning, has taken positions that run counter to conventional wisdom on two of the big issues of the August recess getaway week.  

He was the lead Republican on an effort to shorten an extension of the Highway Trust Fund, joining Democratic Sens. Thomas R. Carper of Delaware and Barbara Boxer of California in a bid to force action on a long-term bill in the post-election lame duck. Corker took a bit of a victory lap Wednesday at a Wall Street Journal breakfast, even as he conceded the House might reject the idea. “It was a tremendous victory where people were actually on the Senate floor debating something and pushing for a rationale to actually solve the problem won out over expediency,” Corker said. “Let’s face it. Congress has been skating now for seven-and-a-half years.”  

Corker’s colleagues added applause.  

“It was a good example of how this place is supposed to work. We had a debate, we had a vote, we had amendments and nobody knew what the outcome was going to be until after the vote,” said Sen. Angus King, I-Maine.  

House Republicans promised to reject the Senate bill, which contains a $2 billion glitch, and send the original House version back to the Senate — if they can muster the votes.  

It’s not clear Corker has much of a broader do-something coalition yet. Corker has joined with Connecticut Democrat Christopher S. Murphy to push an increase in the gas tax paired with reviving expired tax cuts.  

“I had an event in Connecticut on the need to look at the gas tax as a means to fund the Highway Trust Fund, and when I got back to Washington I had a call from Bob who had heard I’d done this and wanted to sit down and talk about it,” Murphy said.  

“I think Bob is heroic in some of the stands he’s taken on transportation funding and immigration,” he added. “There’s no appetite to do controversial things if everyone remains silent, and I think as you just saw [Tuesday], when Bob went out on a limb to … say that we should come back in a lame duck to fix this problem, and he was able to attract enough Republican support.”  

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., who worked with Corker on a key amendment to the Senate’s “gang of eight” immigration plan to provide for a “border surge,” also praised Corker.  

“Bob is a senator that everybody likes and respects on both sides of the aisle. So he is able to work on things, a lot of different things, and get people to work with him. So that’s what you saw with the highway bill,” Hoeven said. “He brings up a lot of different ideas and he tries to work with everybody.”  

On another big ticket item, legislation to deal with the backlog of veterans’ health claims, Corker is even more of an outlier. He may be one of just a handful of lawmakers to oppose the bill, which blitzed out of the House 420-5 Wednesday afternoon . He’s blasted the plan to allow veterans to seek outside care through a new program because of the potential for ballooning the deficit.  

He suggested making spending reductions to pay for it, and even mention the other “r” word usually anathema to the GOP — revenue.  

“If people think it’s important enough … maybe people think it’s important enough where there’d be a net revenue increase,” he said.  

“Here’s what’s going to happen: We’re going to create this Choice program that’s going to get in place. It’s going to become absolutely an entitlement program,” Corker said. “It’s akin to what Republicans did in 2003 with Medicare Part D, right, where you put in this massive program you don’t pay for, and the same thing is getting ready to happen with the veterans bill because once you get the Choice thing in place, it’s never going away.  

“I appreciate the political conundrum that the conferees were in because anything relative to veterans, I mean people are going to fall all over themselves to make it happen before [the] election,” Corker said.  

Corker said he recently told President Barack Obama that while he understood the president was not out campaigning for a Republican-led Senate, such a scenario might improve the prospects for big dealmaking, saying Congress wouldn’t be able to continue to skate by.  

“If Republicans control the Senate, that’s not possible any more. Republicans will own Congress. Republicans will have to get responsible,” Corker said. “If we had a Republican Congress and a Democratic president, we may for the first time have the dynamic where each side has to be responsible, and each side can own whatever it is we’re dealing with.”  

Corker seems to be fashioning himself as a dealmaker in that scenario, which would likely have a very narrow GOP majority.  

“I’ll be one of the most disappointed senators in the Senate if the Republican-controlled Senate doesn’t begin to, to deliberate and function as it should,” Corker said. “I’ll tell you, most of our caucus will revolt if that ends up not being the case.”  

Humberto Sanchez contributed to this report.