Corker’s Carrots and Sticks
The GOP’s last, best hope? Or just its last?

Senator Bob Corker (R., Tenn.)


Daniel Foster

On Monday morning, the low-key Senator Bob Corker (R., Tenn.), who has been quietly climbing the ranks in the Senate GOP caucus, accidentally kicked off one of those news weeks where everyone says the words “Grover Norquist” a lot, when he told Charlie Rose that he’s “not obligated” to the Americans for Tax Reform pledge he signed as a candidate in 2005.

Here’s the thing: Corker didn’t think he was making news. In fact, as far as he was concerned, he had already broken the pledge — in 2011, when he voted to end ethanol tax breaks without offsetting tax reductions elsewhere, a move Norquist considered a breach. Grover reminded Corker at the time that the senator’s pledge wasn’t to Norquistians, but to Tennesseans. Corker agreed, which is why he wore his ethanol vote loud and proud, and why he repeated Monday what he said in 2011, that the only “pledge” he was bound to was his oath of office.

That might explain why the newly unveiled $4.5 trillion “fiscal cliff” fix Corker’s office spent the last year crafting offers new tax revenue, making it — at least for those who are in the strict-constructionist rather than the “Living Pledge” school of ATR hermeneutics — the senator’s second act of tax heresy in the last two years. The plan might also be the most viable going option for the GOP.

First, the bad news: There’s roughly a trillion in new revenue in Corker’s plan. About $250 billion comes from reforming the way Social Security benefits are calculated. The other $750 billion comes from a $50,000 cap on itemized deductions, which would increase the tax bills of some Americans — most of them higher earners. There’s some bad news on the spending side, too: It counts scheduled cuts from the debt-limit deal and war spending that wasn’t going to happen anyway in its $3.528 trillion in cuts.

But it also contains real meat, including $400 billion in belt-tightening in the federal work force (expanding the current hiring freeze and reining in federal-employee benefits) and, most significantly, more than $700 billion in savings obtained from full-spectrum entitlement reform: enrollment-age increases, tighter growth formulae, means-testing, and a strong, market-driven alternative to fee-for-service Medicare that alone is expected to save $290 billion over ten years.

Any of this sound familiar? As I put it in the Corner, it looks like Romney’s tax plan made flesh and dwelling among us. But, as Ross Douthat pointed out, that’s not exactly right, since Romney’s tax plan also came with across-the-board 20 percent rate cuts. So it’s probably more accurate to say Corker’s plan is Romney’s plan made flesh with more plausible math and greater respect for political constraints.

I asked Corker if he thought that the Romney-Ryan ticket’s running on this combination of entitlement reform and new revenue through deduction caps made it politically safe for him to take a similar approach.

“Sure. Romney talked about it. Boehner has alluded to it. And, for what it’s worth, I know Democrats who like it just fine,” Corker told me from his Hill offices. “The goal was to lay out a plan that had both Democratic — but obviously Republican — sensibilities that showed that it’s much easier to go ahead and make the decisions that need to be made now versus just ‘negotiating a framework’ and setting up another fiscal cliff down the line.”

Corker has shared the bill with Senate and House leadership, but he has no illusions that his caucus is going to rally around it.

“This is not to inject ourselves into the negotiations. We realize that the deal that is going to happen will be between exactly two people: Obama and Boehner. . . . There’s nothing that’s going to happen on the Senate floor — I don’t think — that matters,” he says. “We wrote this bill to do nothing but point out to the only two people that matter that anything short of solving this problem is a complete failure.”