Two weeks after the 2012 November elections, as fiscal-cliff talks were just heating up, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., presented House Speaker John Boehner, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the White House, and other congressional leaders with a 242-page solution that would reduce the deficit by $4.5 trillion, structurally reform Medicare, and raise nearly $1 trillion in new revenue.
The proposal was not some patchwork quilt of previously offered ideas cut and pasted together, but the culmination of 11 straight months of original work, personal engagement from the senator, and dedicated staff resources, intended to hand a potential grand bargain to leaders in a position to broker one.
Unsurprisingly, the effort did not succeed. Corker is not a core party leader or even on the Finance Committee. But the product illustrates exactly the kind of massive issue he wants to make a mark on in Washington.
“Here, there’s so much wasted time spent on trying to define differences, and that has never been of great interest to us,” he told National Journal Daily. “Our interest is really in the big issues that our nation faces. I try not to get too involved in the parochial things that are about who shot John, but, ‘Is this going to advance solving a major problem that our nation has?’ It has put us in a little bit of a different place. I realize it.”
Corker’s simple-sounding goals might seem naïve or idealistic against the often-polarized reality in Washington. But he believes in doing the legwork to master an issue, then looking for an opportunity to advance it, which as a member of the minority in the Senate means finding Democratic support.
He said he’s learning to choose more strategically when to weigh in, recognizing it might take a while for the political moment to match his agenda.
“You do learn that everything has its time,” Corker said. “If you try to bring an issue up when the environment is really not right for it to be digested properly, it is a waste of time. You kind of have to just keep plodding along and just wait for the moment which is going to be the best environment to introduce something.”
It can be a frustrating and tedious learning curve for a former businessman who, unlike many in the Senate, did not grow up in the House. As a one-term mayor of Chattanooga, Tenn., he never sweated “counting noses.”
Corker points to former Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., and the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., as two of his legislative role models. He admits that many of his own efforts are still a work in progress.
“Look, there are other people around here who are a whole lot better than I am at getting results legislatively,” he said. “We hopefully are learning. And I think the preparation that we’ve put in place — we really work at that hard—and we try and stay away from the major B.S. that can take place around most issues and stick to the substance. But we have learned a little bit more about timing and when to try to push things ahead. And I’m sure we could be a lot better.”
The biggest knocks on Corker are that he has a tendency to operate as a free agent and that he has yet to prove himself as a successful coalition-builder who can work with Democrats while keeping conservatives behind him.
“For every Democrat that is more open-minded because these guys are ‘with us,’ there is a conservative who is going to be more skeptical,” said a former GOP leadership aide.
Still, Corker is moving up in the Senate power structure. After first being elected in 2006, he soon made waves playing a lead role in the debate over the auto bailout and later working with former Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., on the 2010 financial reform. Although Corker ultimately voted against both measures, robbing himself of the deal-maker status he often aims for, he does take (and legitimately deserves) credit for shaping their outcomes. He has also earned recognition for his work on entitlement reform and a GOP-proposed balanced-budget amendment.
His independent voice on high-profile issues and scholarly devotion to policies he is interested in have made GOP leaders take notice and want him close at hand, both to capitalize on his expertise and to watch his moves.
“Corker is a ‘let’s get something done’ type of guy, regardless of political consequences,” said the former GOP leadership aide. “That is fine when you are an individual senator. That’s not as simple a position to have when you are the party leader.”
Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., said he considers Corker to be a kindred spirit. “Trudging an independent road comes with costs and benefits,” Warner said.
In February 2011, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell tapped Corker to join in leadership meetings in an unelected “counsel” post previously held by Gregg.
A current Republican Senate leadership aide said McConnell considers Corker a trusted adviser and is an important voice, particularly on fiscal issues.
This year, Corker ascended to ranking member on the Foreign Relations Committee and moved his personal office, which was long in the bowels of the Dirksen Senate Office Building, up to a more sophisticated fourth-floor corner suite near the committee chambers. He is still cutting his teeth as a leader on Foreign Relations, having inherited the reins from former Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., a foreign-policy icon who was knighted last week. But he is steadily raising his profile.
Corker made headlines this year when he announced that he wanted to reopen the post-9/11 Authorization for Use of Military Force to lay out policy on lethal actions and use of drones.
After the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi that left four Americans dead, he went on a fact-finding mission to Libya as well as Jordan and portions of the Syrian border, after which he seemed to tone down his rhetoric. During the Easter recess, he met with economic leaders in China and Japan. He has called for a top-to-bottom review of the State Department and foreign aid.
“He has really prepared himself over the last couple of years for this position,” said Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez, D-N.J. “He travels nearly every recess abroad in critical places. He spends the time in hearings listening to the testimony and getting to know the issues. I have a great respect for him.”
Corker hopes to carve out territory on global economic matters by marrying his positions on the Foreign Relations and the Banking panels.
Down the road, current and former Senate aides argue they could see him gunning for the top slot on the Banking Committee. He considered running for National Republican Senatorial Committee chairmanship this year, and he could do so again.
“A lot of us in the Senate end up being cast as far right or moderate, or right of center, or tea party. Bob Corker is Bob Corker,” said Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga.
“It’s not that he’s not a joiner,” Isakson said. “It’s that he doesn’t have to join anything to be himself or to put on a uniform to be someone. He can be himself in his own coat and tie.… You have to have the wherewithal to be able to do it.”
This article appears in the April 23, 2013 edition of NJ Daily.