Is Bob Corker Running for President?

While most senators are flinging rhetoric, Corker’s looking to strike deals, setting himself up to wage the “problem-solver” bid he hopes can win.

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 12: Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) speaks to reporters before going into the Senate Chamber to vote, on October 12, 2013 in Washington, DC. The shut down is currently in it's 12th day.  
National Journal
Michael Catalin
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Michael Catalin
June 26, 2014, 4 p.m.

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.”

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