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Sen. Bob Corker Gets Candid About Tax Cuts, Calls Budget Proposal 'A Waste Of Time'


Senator Bob Corker is known to speak his mind, even if that means going against his own party. This week, the Tennessee Republican criticized both the Trump administration's approach to foreign policy and the president's relationship with some cabinet members. Corker is even more outspoken, though, about tax cuts. NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis reports on why Corker could be a make-or-break vote on this key Republican priority.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: At a Senate Budget Committee hearing yesterday, Senator Bob Corker sounded like a man who had just quit his job and could finally tell his boss what he really thinks.


BOB CORKER: I have difficulty putting that much energy into discussing this budget document because this is some of the most meaningless work that we do here. It has nothing to do with the chairman or the committee. It's just that it's a waste of time.

DAVIS: The Tennessee Republican announced last week he's not running for re-election. Since then, he seems to be speaking a bit more freely. When asked about it, this is what he told reporters.


CORKER: I mean, I still want to be myself here. I don't want to - you know, all of a sudden, I'm leaving and I act differently. Do you feel a little bit more? I don't know, maybe.

DAVIS: There is no issue where Corker is maybe speaking more freely than on taxes. That waste of time he was referring to is the budget resolution. It's generally a political exercise. But this year it has more weight to it 'cause it will pave the way for Senate Republicans to pass tax legislation that only requires 50 votes. Yes, it's that same process and math Republicans used to try and pass health care legislation without needing any Democrats. Corker is firing off warning signs everywhere - to party leaders, at committee hearings and to the media - that Republicans can't bank on his vote. Here's why.


CORKER: Unless it reduces deficits - let me say that one more time - unless it reduces deficits and does not add to deficits with reasonable and responsible growth models and unless we can make it permanent, I don't have any interest in it.

DAVIS: The deficit is the amount the government spends beyond what it takes in, which in recent years has averaged between 400 and $600 billion every year. Last month, the U.S. national debt crossed the $20 trillion mark for the first time. For deficit hawks like Corker, it is unconscionable to vote for tax cuts if it means more deficits and more debt.


CORKER: This is the most passionate thing for me, period, that I work on. Not foreign policy. Not banking. It's this deficit issue. And through the years, especially after Election Day, I've just seen it's like - it's party time here, OK? Nobody cares about deficits anymore.

DAVIS: Republicans who criticized the Obama administration for deficit spending are more muted now that the GOP is in control. Most congressional Republicans argue that tax cuts will stimulate economic growth and ultimately won't add to the deficit. And politically, most Republicans see tax cuts as must-pass after their failure to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Corker isn't buying any of that.


CORKER: Some people may be feeling, hey, we've got to do tax reform even if we do the wrong kind of tax reform just to deliver. And it's hopefully to counter that sense - you know, this is about substance to me. It's not about politics.

DAVIS: Just like on health care, Republicans can only lose two votes and still pass a tax bill if no Democrats support it. That's why securing Corker's vote could be critical. And he's signaling it won't be easy to win over a senator who sees the deficit as the greatest threat to the nation.


CORKER: I'm doing what I can hopefully in a nice way to try to steer us back to the fact that deficits matter. They're a greater threat to us than North Korea or ISIS.

DAVIS: And Corker could be a bigger threat to the Republican tax bill than the party realizes. Susan Davis, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.
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