Sen. Cory Booker Is an Optimist—but Can He Break Senate Gridlock?

Nearing the six-month mark of his Senate tenure, the New Jersey politician is trying to establish his bipartisan bona fides.

Sen. Cory Booker MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

It’s also a logical point of entry for a new senator when voters across the country consistently tell pollsters that their main concern is the economy and jobs. But not everyone agrees. While JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon argued back in January that closing the “skills gap”—training workers for today’s market—was an urgent economic priority, the New York Times’ Paul Krugman calls the skills gap issue a “myth” that gives the business sector an excuse for “blaming workers for their own plight.”

Booker calls his bill the “beginning of what I hope becomes more bipartisan work around dealing with one of America’s most pressing issues, which is unemployment.” It’s a problem that he acknowledges as “particularly acute—particularly challenging—within minority communities.”

But while the bill has attracted attention in part because it’s a team effort between the only two black members of the Senate, its provisions don’t specifically address the unemployment rate in the African-American community, which, at 12.4 percent, is close to double that of the national average. When asked, though, if that was an oversight, Booker expressed confidence that his and Scott’s legislation will help address that gap because “when the unemployment rate in America goes down, it doesn’t just go down for one segment, it goes down for all.”

And in the meantime, when it comes to workers who eventually may not be helped by his bill, Booker has stuck with the position of his Democratic colleagues, urging Congress to extend long-term federal unemployment benefits that he described as “America answering the call to help people in crisis not of their own making.”

When asked, on the subject of bipartisanship, if he thought Republicans would repeal Obamacare if they gained control of the Senate in 2014, Booker cautiously said, “No matter what happens in these elections—this idea that somehow the ACA is going to get repealed—I just don’t think that that, in any way, is a likely outcome.”

Ever the optimist, he went on to say, “If there are parts of the bill that need to be changed, let’s work together in a bipartisan fashion to get those changes done so this can be a more perfect bill to empower Americans to have health care security—access to care, care that’s affordable and ultimately produces healthier outcomes.”

His approach is hard to argue with, but he’ll be relying on the same Republican colleagues that he’s working with now to have that same spirit of compromise, even though, for instance, as a member of the House, Scott voted in 2011 and 2012 to repeal Obamacare, and in the Senate in 2013 to defund it. It’s Booker’s challenge as he rounds out his predecessor’s term and runs again in November for a full term—representing a mostly Democratic state while trying to solidify his brand as an across-the-aisle uniter.

For now he’s following the advice of former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley, who advised him to “sit down with every single one” of the Republicans in the Senate.

“I’ve learned from experience,” he says, “that even though you might disagree with someone on the majority of issues, [if] you can really start to connect with them on areas where you do agree, you can get a lot of stuff done.”