Perhaps the oddest consequence of the entire debt-limit debacle is that U.S. senator Bob Corker, the Tennessean who did as much as anybody in Congress to re-orient thinking in Washington toward the preeminence of spending reduction as a goal, may have thereby cinched his place on the hit list of Tea Party extremists.
On Monday, the very day that the U.S. House of Representatives passed a cuts-only deficit-reduction package permitting a raise in the nation's debt ceiling, the D.C. newspaper The Hill carried an article that concluded thusly: "Republican senators who may face competitive primary challenges from the right include Senators Dick Lugar (IN) and Orrin Hatch (Utah). Other incumbents, including Senators Olympia Snowe (Maine) and Bob Corker (TN), have angered conservatives at times, but a credible candidate has not emerged to challenge either of them."
Corker's adversaries on the Republican right cannot be faulted for not looking hard, though. In November of last year, a day after the resounding GOP sweep of congressional elections, the Tea Party blog RedState.com earmarked Corker for a purge, and this past May, the blog went after the senator again.
"Surely conservatives can find somebody decent to beat the heck out of Bob Corker in a primary in Tennessee," commented RedState editor Erick Erickson. "Corker is terrible. He pushes the Senate GOP left and toward capitulation. He is contemptuous of conservatives. He's bad news."
And maybe the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is merely playing provocateur with a public suggestion this week that U.S. senator Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), an archconservative icon, may try to recruit an opponent for Corker.
The DSCC bases its speculation on the aforementioned article in The Hill, which referenced DeMint's displeasure with the shape of a "compromise" debt-limit bill that most commentators thought was heavily skewed to congressional conservatives.
Said The Hill: "DeMint had promised after last year's election that he would not endorse any opponents to his fellow Republican senators. But now he is angry enough with the debt-ceiling compromise that Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) struck with President Obama that he may back serious challengers to Republican senators who support the plan, according to a source close to the senator."
Ironically, Corker is well-known as the author of one of the original measures to place a cap on annual spending, though he is more open than most congressional Republicans to working across the aisle with Democrats. He also angered many in his own party two weeks ago by criticizing diehard obstructionists and agreeing with Obama that any deal that got made should hold through next year's presidential-election cycle.
The senator expressed himself in a Monday press release as a reluctant supporter of the debt-limit measure: "[R]egrettably, with the current administration and Republican control of only one house of Congress, I believe this is the largest package we can get at this time. In the final analysis I had to ask myself: Do I believe two to four more weeks of negotiating would produce a better deal? The answer is no, and I think the deal could get even worse."
Corker went on: "I'm encouraged that passage of this agreement changes the paradigm in Washington by requiring real cuts in order to raise the debt ceiling. I view the $900 billion down payment as a start and the additional $1.5 trillion the select committee is charged with finding as the floor for their work and will be pushing hard between now and December to get them to work toward something that is much more significant. In business, I learned that you shouldn't say no to taking a profit, and in Washington I've found that you shouldn't say no to a cut in spending."
In a "corrected" version of the press release issued later on Monday, that last sentence was altered to read: "In business I learned that you can never go broke taking a profit, and in Washington I've discovered a similar adage: that you should never say no to spending cuts."
Meanwhile, Corker's Tennessee colleague, U.S. senator Lamar Alexander, though expected to vote for the bill, was warily watching his words as well: "The announcement by congressional leaders and the president of a bipartisan agreement is welcome news. I will review carefully their recommendation to determine if it makes a significant step toward stopping Washington from spending money we don't have."
Three members of the Tennessee congressional delegation opposed the debt-limits bill — U.S. representatives Chuck Fleischmann (R-3rd), Scott DesJarlais (R-4th), and Steve Cohen (D-9th).
Like DeMint, Fleischmann and DesJarlais are Tea Party favorites who thought the bill wasn't strong enough. As Fleischmann put it, "I have said all along that a debt ceiling raise must be accompanied by a balanced budget amendment and significant budget reforms."
Memphian Cohen likened the bill to a "Trojan horse." Said Cohen in a floor speech: "This country has been taken to this point by a group of ideologues that don't like government, want to reduce it, are reducing it, want to hurt employment figures to hurt the president of the United States, Mr. Speaker, and I don't want to hurt him. Justice Louis Brandeis said the greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding. Justice Brandeis is with us today."
The two other Memphis-area representatives, Marsha Blackburn (R-7th) and Stephen Fincher (R-8th), voted aye on the bill, Blackburn explaining her stand this way: "This bill is not perfect, but it accomplishes two significant tasks. It gives the American people the security of avoiding the possibility of default and charts a new course for fiscal responsibility. Republicans have stood by our principle that Washington doesn't have a revenue problem — it has a spending problem. ... I voted for this bill knowing that these spending cuts aren't the first cuts we've achieved, nor will they be the last. This plan will also ensure that we get a clean vote on a balanced budget amendment in both chambers."
• Tennessee's Republican governor Bill Haslam seems to be making an effort to open himself up to the state's media. In an intereview published this week in Nashville's City Paper with reporter Jeff Woods, a no-holds-barred iconoclast, Woods states directly what many journalists discuss in private but have danced around in their copy: "In last year's gubernatorial election campaign, his opponents dismissed Bill Haslam as an amiable featherbrain incapable of leadership. He seemed to play the role with TV ads revealing the candidate's love of hard work, nice-guy politics, chocolate pie and very little else."
Woods also takes note of a sense in the media and among Legislative Plaza adepts that, where legislation is concerned, the governor has deferred too much to Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey (R-Blountville), the state Senate speaker and the architect of many of the key bills, particular conservative-oriented ones, that got passed in the 2011 session of the General Assembly.
Haslam is quoted as presenting this defense:
"You see a governor's role being a lot different than I do. I think you see a governor's role as being one that's about positions and influencing legislation. I see that as a piece but only a piece of the job. My much bigger job is helping drive a 43,000-employee organization and doing everything from taking care of folks with mental health issues to educating 4-year-olds and Ph.D. students and building roads and working hard to bring jobs to Tennessee and working hard to drag us out of the bottom when it comes to education.
"I see what happens on Capitol Hill as being a relatively small percentage of what I'm doing. It would be in my top five, but it's not one, two, or three."
Of late, Haslam has taken to holding teleconferences with state reporters. In one such last week, he and state education commissioner Kevin Huffman made waves with the news that the state was requesting a waiver from the requirements of No Child Left Behind, seeking to substitute instead the achievement standards of Tennessee's federally supported Race to the Top initiative.