WASHINGTON — In his second year as a U.S. senator, Bob Corker, R-Tenn., has not minced words when calling out his colleagues, even those within his party.
He was among those who opposed the economic stimulus package, criticizing the IRS rebates as “political stimulus.”
He has labeled as “pandering” proposals to suspend the gas tax this summer — an idea advocated by Republican presidential nominee John McCain and Democratic contender Hillary Clinton.
He also is nearly alone in his outspoken opposition to a global warming cap-and-trade bill favored by Sens. McCain, Clinton and Barack Obama, saying some of his colleagues are caught up in “the romance of the idea.”
But if his tough talk has drawn the ire of his mates on Capitol Hill, Sen. Corker isn’t letting on.
“I think people on both sides of the aisle have much appreciated the direct and frank talk on issues and taking positions of principle as it relates to the long-term future of our country,” Sen. Corker said.
Tennessee’s junior senator has won praise from conservatives for his stances on fiscal issues.
Noting that his election in 2006 was, in large part, a referendum on whether he was conservative enough, the right-leaning magazine National Review said Sen. Corker is the “most pleasant surprise conservatives have had in the Senate since Georgian Paul Coverdell served from 1993 to 2000.”
On the other side of the political spectrum, praise has not been quite as forthcoming, but even those who disagree with him acknowledge that he has immersed himself deeply into the issues.
“One of the things I appreciate Sen. Corker doing is that he’s committing time to learn about the issue of climate change and figuring out what he might want in the legislation to improve it,” said Mark MacLeod, spokesman for the Environmental Defense Fund, which supports the cap-and-trade bill.
Sen. Corker addressed the Environmental Defense Fund’s board last week, one of two Republican lawmakers invited to do so.
A KEY VOICE ON GLOBAL WARMING
Energy issues have been one of Sen. Corker’s top priorities since the beginning of his tenure, landing him a seat on the Senate Energy Committee. From that pulpit, he has emerged as a leading Republican ally in the fight against global warming.
In meetings with his Republican colleagues, he has urged even those most resistant to the idea that global warming is influenced by human activity that legislative action ought to be pursued to combat its acceleration.
“There’s becoming a consensus that there’s no reason to debate the science,” Sen. Corker said. “The place to be in this debate is in discussing the policies and how it affects the world.”
His path hasn’t always been easy.
Against Republican leadership’s wishes, he supported last year’s energy bill, which increased automobile mileage standards for the first time in three decades while mandating the use of more alternative fuels. Leadership was not happy with his stance, he said.
Sen. Corker’s critics in the environmental movement contend he hasn’t done enough.
The League of Conservation Voters earlier this year gave him the low score of 30 out of 100 for his environmental voting record, dinging him for his votes against water resource development and increasing the use of renewable technologies.
And the Environmental Defense Fund says Sen. Corker is wrong when he claims the emissions cap-and-trade would require trillions of dollars in spending and cause oil and gas prices to rise.
“There are a number of economic studies that have come out about the legislation, and they show that the forecasted cost to the U.S. economy of capping greenhouse gas emissions is 0.58 percent (of gross domestic product),” Mr. MacLeod said. “And even that ignores the cost of doing nothing.”
The legislation, touted by supporters as a market-based solution to lowering greenhouse gas emissions, would set limits — called allotments — on those emissions and allow companies who fall below the limits to sell their remaining allotments on the open market to heavier polluters.
Sen. Corker, who visited Europe last year to study cap-and-trade systems, said he isn’t opposed to all cap-and-trade but that the current bill, authored by Sens. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., and John Warner, R-Va., carries enormous costs that would then be passed down to consumers as a “hidden tax.”
Democrats plan to bring the bill to the floor this summer.
FOCUSED ON THE LONG-TERM
Sen. Corker said his stances reflect a delicate dance between wanting to combat global warming and maintaining ample energy supplies to keep the economy robust in the long-term.
“We’re trying to create a balance between protecting the environment and our country being energy secure,” he said.
The long-term focus also applies to his hawkish positions on fiscal issues, including the economic stimulus package and a housing aid bill — on which Sen. Corker also voted no — that were politically popular.
He criticized the housing bill for including tax breaks for people to buy homes in foreclosure, a measure that would only encourage further foreclosures, he said.
And he has said the economic stimulus package is a $168 billion loan taken from future generations for the sake of “short-term feel-good.”
With the economy on a downward trajectory, Sen. Corker said he expected a backlash from constituents for his opposition to the IRS rebate checks that began arriving in mailboxes and bank accounts this month. But his experience has proved otherwise.
“It’s one of those kind of things that’s counterintuitive,” he said. “I think most people see it for what it is.”