Will GOP's Corker Be 60th Vote On Financial Bill?

Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) i i

Analysts say Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) is popular enough to survive becoming the 60th vote Democrats need to pass the financial reform bill. Jonathan Ernst/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Jonathan Ernst/Getty Images
Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN)

Analysts say Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) is popular enough to survive becoming the 60th vote Democrats need to pass the financial reform bill.

Jonathan Ernst/Getty Images

As Democrats push for a single Republican vote needed to give the White House a filibuster-proof Senate majority on financial regulation legislation, Tennessee Sen. Robert Corker remains at or near the top of their "persuadable" list.

Corker, after all, once negotiated directly with Democrats on the bill. On Monday he took to the Senate floor to criticize both parties for politicizing debate on the legislation, which could come to the floor this week.

Back home in Tennessee, Republicans and political analysts say that the multimillionaire freshman senator, who won't face re-election until 2012, is popular enough to survive becoming the 60th vote Democrats need to pass the bill — if he's viewed as having had a voice in shaping it.

Negotiations On The Hill

Democratic activists have had varying reactions to Tennessee Sen. Robert Corker's role in the Senate debate over a bill to revamp regulations for Wall Street. The progressive Americans for Financial Reform, a national coalition that includes labor, consumer and civil rights groups, this week urged Corker to "stand up" for the work he did with Democrats crafting the bill.

"Sen. Corker actually did the bipartisan work that many Republicans have been complaining wasn't happening all year," says the group's director, Heather Booth. But over at Americans United for Change, Corker was being lambasted for what the group characterized as his role in testing out "a new Republican talking point" for opposing the legislation when he said Tuesday on MSNBC that "there's nothing in this bill that's tough on Wall Street."

Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was widely seen as softening his rhetoric on the financial overhaul bill when, from the Senate floor Monday, he said lawmakers should focus on "fixing the problems in this bill" rather than engaging in personal attacks and questions of motives.

On Tuesday, McConnell announced that bipartisan talks had resumed. Says Vanderbilt University political science professor John Geer: "When you have somebody like Corker, hardly a card-carrying liberal, criticize the rhetoric — that made McConnell's position untenable. The marker that Corker left has some long-term effects."

Liz Halloran

"A lot can happen between then and now," says Carol Swain, a Vanderbilt University political science and law professor.

"He has the potential to do pretty much what he wants," she says.

Fed Up With Both Sides?

In recent days, it had appeared that Corker had become an increasingly reluctant symbol of the bipartisan work he once engaged in with Democratic Sens. Mark Warner of Virginia and Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd of Connecticut.

Corker said that "loopholes" had subsequently been written into the bill, and he joined his 41 fellow Senate Republicans in signing a letter that stated their opposition to the current legislation.

But his tone on the Senate floor Monday, during which he called financial overhaul legislation "very much needed in our country" and criticized Republican leaders for characterizing the bill as a "bailout," gave Democrats fresh hope that they could muster a supermajority in the Senate.

Last week, Corker said it would take "five minutes" to make fixes he believes the bill needs. On Tuesday, he told the Chattanooga Times Free Press that the debate emanating from both sides of the aisle has been "silly," and he advocated finishing work on the bill.

Some liberal commentators have questioned Corker's motivations: He's been called a publicity seeker and a stalking horse for Republican talking points.

But John Geer, editor of Vanderbilt's Journal of Politics and a longtime analyst of Tennessee politics, says he sees something quite different.

"Sen. Corker is governing very much as a pragmatic conservative," Geer says. "He's very much in the same mold as a Lamar Alexander: a conservative guy, trying to do things in a bipartisan fashion, but not overly ideological."

Alexander, a Republican, is the senior U.S. senator from Tennessee.

Corker appears to be interested in actually governing, Geer says. And there's a hunger for that among the American people — who, according to recent polls, see Congress in a historically negative light.

A Voice In The Process

Mark Winslow is among Republicans voters back home who say they want to see their representatives in Congress participate in negotiations over legislation.

"I think Sen. Corker is doing the right thing in maintaining a seat at the negotiating table," says Winslow, a member of the Tennessee GOP’s state executive committee.

"Without his involvement," he says, "the odds increase that we will see a bill rammed through along partisan lines."

That doesn't mean that Winslow, who lives in Antioch, likes the bill as it stands.

"I hope the final version does not provide a 'bailout fund' for continued government intervention of the kind we have seen the past two years," he said. "Such programs could eventually increase the unsustainable debt burden already placed on future generations."

The $50 billion fund proposed in the legislation would be paid for by financial institutions to defray the costs of future bank failures, including the winding down of the companies. Corker was involved in helping devise the fund. But on Tuesday he told reporters on Capitol Hill that he expects that Democrats will drop the fund proposal, and, in doing so, will help ratchet up bipartisan support for the bill. He said he expects that a revised bill could persuade as many as 20 Republicans to vote in favor of the measure.

There is a downside to a sustained Republican strategy of not wanting to be seen as working on an initiative that's seen as a White House priority, and one that wide margins of Americans say is needed.

"You don't want to make the majority look good — that's the nature of the beast," says Vanderbilt's Swain. "At the same time, you're elected to make good law."

"Republicans would help themselves and the nation," she says, "by helping Congress develop the best legislation." And that, she says, means negotiating with Democrats and offering amendments that will put the positions of members of both parties on the record.

Geer says his sense is that Republicans "are going to the well one too many times" with their bailout argument.

Who Gets Credit ... Or Blame?

The assessment back home is, indeed, that Corker can do pretty much what he wants, but with some caveats, says Swain and other Tennessee political analysts.

Ken Blake, who directs that Middle Tennessee State University poll, says that, ultimately, it will be the voters' perception of the bill, if it passes with a Corker vote, rather than its content that will determine home state play. And Corker's core constituency in Tennessee, he says, comprises white, evangelical conservatives.

"Sen. Corker will have a problem back home if he votes for President Obama's financial regulation overhaul," he says. "He'll have less of a problem if he votes for financial regulation that President Obama happens to support, too."

"Hear the difference in emphasis?" Blake asks.

Corker no doubt has.

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