Bob Corker wants a problem-solver to run for president in 2016.
Not by chance, that’s how the Tennessee Republican and ranking member on the Foreign Relations Committee describes his own role in the Senate.
“Every senator has probably thought about it,” Corker said about running for president. “All I really wish to see happen in 2016 is that we have a good president, great president for our nation. I hope someone steps forward that has the ability to solve problems — not just throw rhetoric out there.”
And despite serving in one of the least productive Senates in history, solving problems is something Corker thinks he’s done since landing in the upper chamber in 2006.
Indeed, while the tea party has dragged the Republican Party rightward and the GOP wages a pitched fight for control of the Senate, Corker has been busy forging a reputation as a deal-maker, someone who zeroes in on a high-stakes issue and then crosses the aisle to ink a deal with Democrats.
In 2009 and 2010, he worked with then-Sen. Christopher Dodd on financial regulatory reform. Last year, he wrote a border-security amendment that pushed an overhaul of the immigration system through the Senate against conservative opposition. Now, he’s working with Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut on a long-shot plan to shore up the depleting Highway Trust Fund and offering a plan that would hike the gas tax.
In the process, he’s won positive press, endeared himself to his Democratic colleagues, and secured a platform from which to draw a contrast with a wing of his party that he views as too rigid.
“That’s Corker being Corker,” said Tom Ingram, who ran Corker’s campaign in 2006 and is a former chief of staff to Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee. “He’s not going to follow anyone’s lead but his own.”
Corker would be joining a crowded field of potential Republican presidential candidates, including colleagues Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio. He would also be viewed as the least conservative among them.
But he emphasizes that he’s focused on his work in the Senate.
Most recently, that’s included crafting a deal with Murphy on the impending depletion of the Highway Trust Fund, which could run dry by the end of the month.
The Corker-Murphy plan would raise the so-called gas tax 12 cents over two years and index it to account for inflation — the idea being that Congress could then avoid another Trust Fund fiscal cliff. The senators call for paying for their idea by extending provisions known as tax-extenders. The details are murky, but it likely won’t matter much, because the measure hasn’t gained much traction.
The plan landed with a thud among Republicans, and Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon has unveiled a Democratic alternative in the Finance Committee that pays for the highway fund with a number of measures, including a change to the heavy-vehicle use tax.
But, Corker and Murphy beat their colleagues out of the gate with a proposal that won laudatory write-ups, including in The Washington Post and Forbes.
Corker also bought himself some chits across the aisle.
“I think Senator Corker certainly is putting something on the line, but that’s not unlike him. Sen Corker is, Bob is, somebody who has real convictions, and over and over again he’s shown his willingness to step out in front of his party and try to lead,” Murphy said. “That’s what this is really about.”
When Corker was first elected to the Senate in 2006 after a hard-fought campaign, the millionaire former businessman and one-time mayor of Chattanooga arrived at the Capitol the next January and couldn’t believe just how disappointing the job he had finally won truly was.
“He was like the dog that caught the car,” Ingram said.
As the minority party, Republicans have had little chance to offer amendments on the floor. Few bills beyond the must-pass legislation and occasionally a bipartisan, feel-good reauthorization clear the gantlet the Senate floor had become.
Add to this the nagging and rampant vote-scoring of outside groups and the pent-up frustration among senators whose amendments can’t get votes and whose rights, they say, Majority Leader Harry Reid has eviscerated with the nuclear option. The atmosphere created an opportunity for someone willing to turn into the trending political winds instead of sailing with them.
Corker took that opportunity.
But it’s cost him among conservatives. He’s got a dismal scorecard with Heritage Action — 47 percent while the Senate GOP average is 67 percent. He’s also viewed as insufficiently conservative among some of his colleagues, which would present a significant bar to winning the GOP primary.
“He doesn’t seem to have a philosophical North Star,” said a Senate Republican aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity to be candid. “Maybe he’s got more of the ‘art of the deal.’ “
Corker knows he’s viewed that way among conservatives.
He disputes that he’s insufficiently conservative on economic matters, but suggests that he weights deal-making more heavily than many of his colleagues.
“I think I’ve got one of the stronger moorings, fiscally,” he said. “At the same time I come from a business background, and I think some people are here solely for politics.”
Corker also sometimes superficially seems to side with Democrats even though he disagrees with their policies.
Recently, he voted with Democrats to advance a minimum-wage bill and student-loan legislation — both Democratic election-year priorities — but those were procedural votes. It’s time to debate those issues, Corker reasoned, but he opposed the underlying legislation.
Whether there’s a political cost to Corker at home in Tennessee has already been put to the test. He seems to have passed. He won reelection in 2012 without facing a tea-party threat and handily defeated his Democratic opponent by nearly 35 points.
“Compromise has become a dirty word, but we have to find solutions.” said Hamilton County, Tenn., GOP Chairman Tony Sanders. “I don’t want to come across as naive, [but] he’s not going to worry about whether it’s an election year.”
If Corker’s eagerness to strike a deal has a downside, it’s that he can’t always bring other Republicans along. On the Highway Trust Fund, in particular, Corker faces significant opposition.
Alexander, who is facing reelection this year, indirectly shot the plan down, saying he did not want to consider the gas-tax hike until there was a road program on the table he could support. Do that, then let’s discuss how to pay for it, he said. Alexander, though, did not criticize Corker for his approach.
“I think Senator Corker is doing what he thinks is the right thing to do, and I respect him for it,” Alexander said.
Other Republicans are more direct. Sen. James Risch of Idaho said he heard the plan had been circulating but hadn’t read it.
“I don’t know if it’s bad for the party, but, generally speaking, Republicans oppose tax hikes,” he said. “I suspect it’s going to be a pretty heavy lift to engage many Republicans.”