When President Obama travels to Tennessee on Friday, Air Force One will be carrying some unusual cargo: Republicans.
Obama began a three-state tour this week by highlighting areas where he intends to keep going it alone despite new Republican majorities in Congress.
But in Tennessee, it seems, the tour turns from confrontation to courtship as the president is joined by a pair of Republicans whose cooperation will be essential in his ability to score legislative victories this year.
The Tennessee senators joining Obama for the Knoxville trip are both newly minted chairmen of Senate committees that will have a major say over the president’s domestic and foreign policy agenda.
Potential legislation to change the Affordable Care Act will probably start in Lamar Alexander’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, while any efforts to curtail the president’s foreign policy in the Middle East, Cuba and elsewhere will receive tough scrutiny from Bob Corker’s Foreign Relations Committee.
Both men fit the mold of Republicans who, unlike some of their more tea-party-aligned colleagues, have expressed a willingness to work with the president and boast their own executive experience. Alexander is a former governor and Education Department secretary who once ran for president, while Corker is a former businessman and mayor of Chattanooga.
Corker was already the focus of a short-lived “charm offensive” by the White House in 2013 that matched the president with small groups of Republicans in hopes of a fresh start early in his second term. He earned the rarest of presidential invitations: a round of golf.
But both have shown no reluctance to confront the president and say they won’t hesitate to do so in the next two years.
“What better time could there be to be chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee than at a time when ... it’s such an important area, not just for the United States but for the world, and at a time when no doubt the president’s going to be active in that regard,” Corker said in an interview.
The president’s trip to Tennessee — his second in just over four weeks — is expected to focus on college affordability and job training, areas that also fall under the jurisdiction of Alexander’s committee.
Obama announced late Thursday that he would roll out a plan to make two years of community college free, or nearly so.
“What I’d like to do is to see the first two years of community college free for everybody who is willing to work for it,” he said in a video filmed on Air Force One and posted on Facebook.
Alexander is showing the challenges newly empowered Republicans can pose to the president, or the potential partnership they can offer.
He is co-sponsoring legislation the president has threatened to veto that would change the definition of full-time employment under the president's signature healthcare law from 30 hours a week to 40 hours. A similar bill passed the House on Thursday.
But he’s also sponsored new bills that would make it easier for students to apply for and pay off college student loans, a White House priority. In addition, Alexander will oversee two major, must-pass education initiatives this year: reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind program and a sweeping new higher education package.
Given Alexander’s resume and previous service in a presidential administration, the senator isn’t likely to be wooed by a flight on Air Force One.
“I just think the president’s putting a spotlight on a very good idea in Tennessee,” he said. “I’m glad he’s going and I’m glad to be going with him.”
Alexander says education policy should be a focus for bipartisan cooperation in the next two years, in addition to trade, tax reform and infrastructure, the three areas most often cited by the White House and Republican leadership. It will be a topic that takes up much of the committee’s time, though Alexander also said the panel was “going to try to repair the damage that Obamacare has done.”
“There won’t be as much agreement about that,” he said.
Despite the optics of Friday’s trip, the White House has been cool to the idea that the president might relaunch efforts to wine and dine his congressional opposition.
“It worked great, didn’t it?” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest joked this week of the last “charm offensive.”
As Obama looks toward the end of his term and seeks to highlight legacy achievements, Republicans are beginning a campaign to replace him in the White House and preserve their new majorities. Key party leaders — Alexander among them — have acknowledged the need to rack up some bipartisan achievements that would show voters they are worthy of trust in 2016.
But “it’s important for the president to show that he can govern” too, Alexander said.
Corker, who has also clashed with the president in areas including housing, said that while his committee would closely monitor the president’s foreign policy moves, the members wouldn’t be knee-jerk obstructionists.
“The Foreign Relations Committee is not a place where, because the president proposes something, the automatic reaction is negative,” he said. “We want to prod and push and make sure that good policies are put forth. We do disagree with some, obviously. But … the first reaction is to seek understanding and to see if this furthers our national interests, but not one of negativity.”