WASHINGTON – When Sen. Bob Corker proposed raising federal gas taxes this week, many around Capitol Hill couldn't decide if he showed political courage or political overreach.
Regardless, as Congress moves toward a summer debate over highway funding, Corker, R-Tenn., is drafting something most conservatives avoid at all costs — a tax bill.
The Tennessee senator, along with Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., wants the 18.4-cents per-gallon federal gasoline tax and the 24.4-cents per-gallon federal diesel tax to each increase by 12 cents over the next two years — and then be indexed to inflation. If the gasoline tax had been increased based on inflation since the last hike in 1993, it would stand at 30 cents now, about where Corker wants to put it.
Corker and Murphy say the federal Highway Trust Fund needs the money if the country is to repair a rapidly deteriorating transportation system, especially its roads. They emphasize higher fuel levies should be coupled with reductions in other taxes affecting businesses and families, so that the bottom line reads "revenue neutral."
In predictable Washington fashion, the praising — and sniping — hasn't taken long.
Carter Eskew, the Democratic strategist behind Al Gore's 2000 presidential race, described Corker's involvement on the Washington Post's website as "a move that truly passes for courage these days in the GOP ranks."
Corker, who earlier this year got labeled a Republican "contrarian" by the newspaper Politico, won praise from other quarters as well.
"I think it is an act of common sense, which in our polarized environment passes for an act of political courage," said Cal Jillson, political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. "Something has to be done (about highways)."
It's not like Corker is calling for higher income taxes, Jillson said, "This is a user fee."
The senator's decision drew praise from AAA and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. And from the Tennessee congressional delegation, Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Nashville, said: "I am proud of Sen. Corker for saying that we should fund our highway repairs and improvements, instead of borrowing more money from China. He is the first to break from Republican orthodoxy, and deserves credit for his bravery."
But others in the delegation were more measured, if not downright critical.
"I will not agree to increasing user fees for roads until I first see, and decide I can support, the road program," said Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander, who is running for re-election.
"Pay as you go is the conservative approach. If new roads are needed, there is nothing to keep other states from doing what Tennessee has done: raise state user fees and build roads without borrowing money."
Reps. Marsha Blackburn, R-Brentwood, and Scott DesJarlais, R-Pittsburg, took issue with the plan.
"Washington doesn't have a revenue problem," Blackburn said. "Washington has a spending problem. Another tax increase on hard-working taxpayers is not the way to solve the Highway Trust Fund issue."
And conservative interest groups say there is a lot of waste in highway spending
Club for Growth President Chris Chocola called the proposal "a $164 billion dollar tax increase, plain and simple.
"A gas tax hike would be both bad policy and terribly anti-growth."
Other conservative criticisms of Corker's proposal
"Why would you raise taxes on Americans who need to fill up their gas tanks to get to work when those funds will be diverted to non-highway construction products like bike paths, horse trails and New York City subways? This bill really ought to be about asphalt," said Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union.
Americans for Prosperity, a group launched by the Koch brothers, said it saw no wisdom in a gas tax increase either.
"Motorists already pay billions in fuel taxes each year. Transportation funding should be reformed on the spending side, not the revenue side," said spokesman Levi Russell.
"Until Congress gets serious about reducing wasteful spending -- and stops diverting (highway trust fund) dollars on parochial, non-road and non-bridge related projects -- it is not fair to ask motorists, truckers and bus operators for another dime."
The National Taxpayers Union also thinks current highway funding has a lot of waste, said spokesman Brandon Arnold.
"Before we go about raising gas taxes, we need to look at the spending side, making sure projects are properly prioritized," Arnold said.