By Paul C. Barton, Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - Republican Sen. Bob Corker has commanded national attention over the past week for his proposals to strengthen border security as a prerequisite for giving undocumented immigrants a path toward citizenship.
Corker and Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., offered their language including proposals to double the number of border patrol officers and the length of U.S.-Mexico border fencing to win over conservative colleagues who harbored doubts about comprehensive immigration reform.
What's clear, however, is Corker hasn't won over the tea party Republicans in Tennessee who continue to question his conservative credentials on this and other matters.
The same can be said of fellow Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander, who was quick to cosponsor the Corker-Hoeven language.
Many Tennessee tea partyers view the Corker-Hoeven amendment as a lipstick on a pig, written with the same thousand page-plus verbosity and loophole-laden style as other major federal legislation of recent years.
"I think most tea party members feel completely betrayed," Ben Cunningham, president of the Nashville Tea Party, said of Corker's key role in the immigration debate.
Congress, Cunningham said, should prove it can control the borders rather than just include proposals to do so in a bill that offers de facto amnesty to the 11 million-plus undocumented immigrants already in the country.
"Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander can express all the good intentions they want. They have to prove it," Cunningham said. "We have been told for two decades we were going to control the borders."
In Alexander's case, the disgruntlement keeps alive the possibility of a primary challenge in 2014, when he will run for a third term, say Cunningham and other tea party leaders in the state.
"There is a lot of chatter (about challenging Alexander)," said Mark Herr, head of the Mid-South Tea Party in Memphis.
In addition to immigration reform, the two Tennessee senators have drawn flak from conservatives this year for supporting sales taxes on Internet purchases, accepting dinner invitations from President Barack Obama, supporting income tax increases on upper incomes in order to avoid a "fiscal cliff" and supporting a cloture motion that allowed Senate Democrats to bring up a proposal for expanded background checks on gun sales. Despite voting for cloture, Corker and Alexander opposed expanded background checks themselves.
Corker's office took some of the criticisms over the immigration bill so seriously it issued a separate press release that attempted to sort alleged "myth" from facts about his security proposals.
He contends there would be at least a 10-year waiting period - after all the security provisions have been fulfilled - before immigrants could apply for a green card. Said Corker, "This is not amnesty."
Corker also offers detailed defenses of his other votes, including the one to raise taxes on upper-income Americans. Without that vote, the bottom 99 percent would have seen their taxes go up, he said.
About tea party members in general, spokesman Laura Herzog said: "Sen. Corker takes the opinions of all Tennesseans seriously and wakes up every day working hard to solve the problems facing Tennesseans and all Americans."
Alexander was not immediately available for comment.
Also getting the attention of tea party members have been new rankings of the 535 members of Congress by Heritage Action, a group associated with the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank.
The rankings consider not just votes but a variety of other legislative activities, including bill sponsorships and cosponsorships, in ranking the conservatism of members. It gave Alexander a 47 percent score, one of the lowest given to any Republican in either house. Corker scored 53 percent.
Whether either, especially Alexander, has anything to worry about, divides political analysts.
"If the tea party is willing to go after (Utah Sen.) Orrin Hatch, I would think they would be willing to go after Alexander and/or Corker," said Eric Groenendyk, political analyst at the University of Memphis.
Of Corker in particular, he said "my guess is that he's not exactly the most popular guy in tea party circles these days."
For Alexander, with his re-election campaign looming, "the timing is more problematic," said Mark Byrnes at Middle Tennessee State University. "But he has been careful in recent months to shore up his right flank."
And Anthony J. Nownes, political scientist at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, added: "Strangely, the tea party movement is not particularly strong in Tennessee. These guys will take some heat, sure. But in a primary each will win big. And there is no Democrat who can touch either one."
Cunningham, when told of the political analysts' opinions, said: "The press and the academics have never been able to get their head around the tea party. That is interesting speculation. We will see next year how it all pans out."
Contact Paul C. Barton at firstname.lastname@example.org