Time run­ning short for deficit hawks

Corker is wary of adding to na­tion’s debt but has sup­ported GOP tax plan

The Washington Post - - ECONOMY & BUSINESS - BY ERICA WERNER

Ev­ery time talk of cut­ting taxes has come up in Congress this year, Repub­li­can Sen. Bob Corker of Ten­nessee has warned that leg­is­la­tion can­not add a penny to the fed­eral debt — “the great­est threat to our na­tion,” in his words.

Yet at each junc­ture, Corker has sup­ported mov­ing along a tax bill that would blow a $1.5 tril­lion hole in the bud­get in the next decade, only of­fer­ing a vague prom­ise that the is­sue would be ad­dressed in fi­nal leg­is­la­tion.

He has run out of time. The Se­nate is plan­ning to vote on its tax bill as soon as Thurs­day, and Corker is promis­ing that it will con­tain an as-yet unseen mea­sure re­vers­ing the tax cuts if the GOP’s pro­jec­tions about the bill’s ef­fect on the debt turn out to be too rosy in fu­ture years.

The ques­tion is what Corker, who re­cently an­nounced that he won’t stand for a third term, will do if a deficit “trig­ger” put into the tax-cut bill fails to make it into the fi­nal leg­is­la­tion. Al­ready, sev­eral key Repub­li­cans and in­flu­en­tial out­side groups such as the U.S. Cham­ber of Com­merce have sharply crit­i­cized the idea as cre­at­ing un­nec­es­sary un­cer­tainty over fu­ture tax rates.

“I don’t want to box my­self in. I’m just say­ing this is very im­por­tant to me,” Corker said in an in­ter­view this week. “Ev­ery­one has known from Day One this is very im­por­tant to me.”

Crit­ics say they fear that the se­na­tor, who has played a part in many of Congress’s big leg­isla­tive ef­forts over the past decade and re­cently en­gaged in ver­bal war­fare with Pres­i­dent Trump, will ca­pit­u­late.

“Bob Corker has made a ca­reer out of protest­ing very loudly, and then fall­ing in line with his party’s lead­er­ship when it counts,” said Brian Fal­lon, a for­mer spokesman for Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), the Se­nate mi­nor­ity leader.

Fal­lon ar­gued that Corker, for in­stance, worked with Democrats on an auto sec­tor bailout and on new reg­u­la­tions for Wall Street, only to aban­don the ef­forts later on.

“Be­ing a mav­er­ick re­quires ac­tu­ally vot­ing your con­science on the Se­nate floor, not just say­ing the right things on the set of ‘Morn­ing Joe,’ ” Fal­lon said.

Corker has led a group of Se­nate Repub­li­cans, in­clud­ing Sens. James Lank­ford (Okla.), Jeff Flake (Ariz.) and Jerry Mo­ran (Kan.), to try to amend the Se­nate bill to take more se­ri­ously the risk that it adds to the debt over the long run. In their plan, a threat­ened short­fall would trig­ger rate in­creases or the elim­i­na­tion of de­duc­tions to bring in more rev­enue and tame the deficit hit.

In­ten­tion­ally or not, Corker and his fel­low deficit hawks have laid bare the com­pro­mises most oth­ers in their party have been will­ing to make in search of a vic­tory on taxes af­ter a hu­mil­i­at­ing year-long leg­isla­tive drought.

“I came here be­cause of fis­cal con­cerns. I’ve seen no real move­ment, mat­ter of fact prob­a­bly neg­a­tive move­ment, as it re­lates to deficit is­sues,” Corker said. “And what I don’t want to do is be a part of some­thing where I’m know­ingly in­volved in mak­ing that sit­u­a­tion worse.”

It’s a concern that ap­pears to be shared by pre­cious few in the GOP th­ese days. Af­ter harp­ing about the bal­loon­ing debt dur­ing the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, Repub­li­cans are rush­ing through a tax bill that will add $1.4 tril­lion to $1.6 tril­lion to the deficit over the first decade and per­haps much more be­yond that, ac­cord­ing to most analy­ses, par­tic­u­larly if Congress re­news ex­pir­ing tax pro­vi­sions.

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion and GOP lead­ers say that eco­nomic growth re­sult­ing from pas­sage of the bill will more than make up for the rev­enue loss from dra­mat­i­cally lower cor­po­rate rates and tax cuts that dis­pro­por­tion­ately ben­e­fit the wealthy. But they have yet to of­fer any proof that such growth will ma­te­ri­al­ize.

Corker says that since Repub­li­can lead­ers and the ad­min­is­tra­tion de­cided to pro­ceed with­out wait­ing for Congress’s bud­get score­keep­ers to come up with es­ti­mates about the bill’s widerang­ing eco­nomic ef­fects, some kind of mech­a­nism is needed to pro­vide him a com­fort level that the bill won’t do more harm than good to the debt.

“I’d love to see tax re­form take place. Since we’re skip­ping sev­eral steps along the way, I just want to make sure the rev­enue are there, and we’re not in­creas­ing deficits, and th­ese back­stop ideas and trig­ger ideas are ones that I think can re­solve that is­sue,” Corker said.

“If ev­ery­body’s so con­fi­dent that th­ese rev­enue pro­jec­tions are go­ing to be met, they shouldn’t be a prob­lem,” he added.

Corker has lever­age in the closely di­vided Se­nate. With Democrats unan­i­mously op­posed to the tax leg­is­la­tion, Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch McCon­nell (R-Ky.) can lose only two GOP votes and still pass the bill with a tiebreak­ing as­sist from Vice Pres­i­dent Pence.

Corker said Tues­day that he had an “agree­ment in prin­ci­ple, very strong agree­ment,” with McCon­nell to in­clude his deficitcurb­ing lan­guage in the fi­nal bill.

McCon­nell said ac­com­mo­dat­ing ev­ery mem­ber’s concern is prov­ing chal­leng­ing.

“It’s a chal­leng­ing ex­er­cise. Think of sit­ting there with a Ru­bik’s Cube, try­ing to get to 50. And we do have a few mem­bers who have con­cerns, and we’re try­ing to ad­dress them,” he said. “And we know we would not be able to go for­ward un­til we get 50 peo­ple sat­is­fied, and that’s what we’re work­ing on.”

For some long­time Wash­ing­ton ob­servers, Corker has be­come a rare voice in the GOP still sound­ing the alarm about the $20 tril­lion debt.

“There’s a snow­balling mind­set that’s taken hold that they must pass a big tax cut, and the po­lit­i­cal mo­men­tum be­hind it is great,” said Bob Bixby, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the Concord Coali­tion, a non­par­ti­san or­ga­ni­za­tion that ad­vo­cates for fis­cal re­spon­si­bil­ity. “And it takes guts to stand in front of an avalanche and say stop.”

Still, Bixby is skep­ti­cal that even the “trig­ger” that Corker is pur­su­ing will make a real dif­fer­ence, since law­mak­ers could waive it at a later date to avoid broad tax in­creases. Bixby said Repub­li­cans could have cho­sen to struc­ture the tax plan so it would have no im­pact on the debt.

“It might look like a face-sav­ing de­vice, a fig leaf,” Bixby said. “If there was a real concern about deficits, they could do this rev­enue-neu­tral.”

Corker, 65, is a for­mer con­struc­tion ex­ec­u­tive and mayor of Chat­tanooga who has served in the Se­nate since 2007.

Corker joined with Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) to work on a piece of the Dodd-Frank fi­nan­cial over­haul leg­is­la­tion passed un­der Pres­i­dent Barack Obama, in­volv­ing the liq­ui­da­tion of fi­nan­cial firms, but ended up vot­ing against the leg­is­la­tion. He helped craft a border-se­cu­rity com­pro­mise that eased a ma­jor im­mi­gra­tion bill through the Se­nate in 2013, al­though it ended up dy­ing in the House. As For­eign Re­la­tions chair­man, he pushed for Congress to get a vote on the Iran nu­clear deal, though Congress ul­ti­mately failed to re­ject the ac­cord.

“Bob Corker is one of the most prin­ci­pled guys in the Se­nate. I think he will take a hard look at some of th­ese growth as­sump­tions,” Warner said.

Af­ter sup­port­ing Trump for pres­i­dent last year and ini­tially of­fer­ing op­ti­mistic as­sess­ments af­ter Trump as­sumed of­fice, Corker an­nounced his re­tire­ment from the Se­nate in Septem­ber and broke de­ci­sively with the pres­i­dent soon af­ter. Corker charged that Trump was de­grad­ing the of­fice of the pres­i­dency and po­ten­tially set­ting the United States on the path to­ward World War III. Trump in turn dis­par­aged Corker over Twit­ter as “Lid­dle’ Bob Corker.”

Al­lies say they don’t ex­pect the spat to have much bear­ing on how Corker votes on the tax bill, but the leg­is­la­tion has ex­posed yet an­other frac­ture be­tween the two men. Both have a back­ground in con­struc­tion in­dus­tries, yet while the brash and im­pul­sive Trump has boasted he’s the “king of debt” and shows no hes­i­tancy in push­ing a tax bill that’s not paid for, Corker learned the op­po­site les­son in his years in busi­ness, ac­cord­ing to Tom In­gram, a long­time ally and for­mer cam­paign aide.

“As a de­vel­oper and an en­tre­pre­neur, debt’s fre­quently the killer if you don’t man­age it well,” In­gram said. “And I ex­pect he re­lates his own per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence.”

MELINA MARA/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Se­na­tor Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) an­swers ques­tions from jour­nal­ists about the Repub­li­can-backed tax plan. Corker has promised that the leg­is­la­tion will con­tain a mea­sure re­vers­ing tax cuts if the GOP’s pro­jec­tions about the bill’s ef­fect on the debt turn out to be too rosy.

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