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Bob Corker, Senate GOP's tireless dealmaker, looks beyond immigration reform

Tennessee's Bob Corker considered quitting the Senate, but plunged back into the art of the deal, helping to build a big majority on immigration reform. Also on his agenda: taxes, deficits, and housing.

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It’s not only junior lawmakers who have taken a shine to Corker.

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It wasn’t an accident that Corker (or Senator Hoeven, for that matter) were in the mix on immigration, an issue on which neither has any background, says Professor Baker. The two senators are among a handful of conservatives that Democratic Senate leaders see as practical, fair-minded partners who carry enough weight in their own conference to make other Republicans take notice.

The trust of Democratic leaders like Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York, with whom Corker worked on the immigration compromise, is doubly impressive considering that Corker has served as member of his own party’s Senate leadership team since 2011.

“He’s a conservative,” Baker says, “but you don’t have to be a moderate to be a dealmaker. In fact, being a moderate may lessen your value.... Bob Corker is not always ‘gettable’ [to vote for a bill]. So when he gets drawn into something, people are more apt to notice.”

“It turns out in the strange, exotic world of the Senate there are people who are identified as dealmakers even though they may have reliably ideological votes,” says Baker. “They are people who turn up at the right time.”

A grown man’s time

When Corker was the only freshman Republican senator in the Democratic wave of 2006, the timing hardly seemed auspicious. He quietly took a seat on the Banking Committee, where he thought his private-sector background would be put to good use. When Democrats obtained a Senate supermajority in the 2008 election, it looked as if nearly all Republicans, much less junior first-term members, would be on the outside looking in for the foreseeable future.

Corker flourished working on the panel’s response to the banking crisis and on other issues, but the Washington gridlock that momentarily had been broken by crisis and the unitary control of Congress eventually resumed.

Two years away from his 2012 reelection, Corker says he very nearly decided to pack up and go home. Bitter partisanship and gridlock were making the guy with all the briefing books miserable.

“If your focus in life is on being productive,” says Corker, “when things are not happening ... one has to ask oneself, ‘Is this worth a grown man’s time?’ ”

In the end, he decided, there was only one way the Senate could go: up.

“I think we have talent in the Senate that is oriented toward solving problems. I think we have more of that than people acknowledge,” he says. “And second, I would say just the fact that it’s been so bad for so long, at some point, people hit the floor and there’s momentum in another direction.”

So far, it seems, he’s been right.

“I do think the immigration bill we just passed, and the way that has occurred, can help show that complex issues can be dealt with and that people can do it with a high degree of trust,” says Corker. “Right now, there’s more momentum in a positive direction than I’ve seen in several years in the Senate.”

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