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.

Molly Riley/AP/File
Sen. Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee speaks on Capitol Hill in this April file photo. His success at finding common ground on border security helped forge a big, bipartisan majority for immigration reform, which passed the Senate 68 to 32 last week.

As Bob Corker ambled down from the Senate chamber last week, he wore a knowing smile: Immigration reform wasn’t going to squeak through the Senate – it was going to pass big.

On that Monday, an amendment co-authored by Senator Corker, a Tennessee Republican, and Sen. John Hoeven (R) of North Dakota passed a procedural hurdle that signaled that more than a dozen Republicans and several previously shaky conservative Democrats would be there in the end, giving the bill the sweeping, bipartisan backing its authors hoped would power the immigration debate forward in the reluctant House of Representatives.

Leaning in to a crush of reporters, the affable Corker was midway through a riff on the amendment when, apropos of nothing, he paused.

“I’ve enjoyed the work I’ve done over the last two weeks on this bill more than anything I’ve done in the United States Senate,” he said with a grin. “I think it’s important work, I’m glad to have been involved in it, and certainly gratified by the vote.”

Rare sentiments, says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Jersey, for a member of a legislative body wracked by gridlock. "Elation is not a common emotion in the United States Senate these days,” he says.

But Corker, a construction entrepreneur and a former mayor of Chattanooga, Tenn., draws an electric joy from the pursuit of the deal, and if he has anything to say anything about it, the immigration pact won’t be the only major accord Congress strikes before this term is out.

While Washington's dysfunction almost led him to quit the Senate after one term in 2012, Corker’s dogged effort to broker compromises on a handful of major issues bespeaks a senator who is arguably the body’s happiest warrior, plunging into issues from Benghazi to the budget with aplomb.

“He’s passionate, he cares, he’s trying to figure out how to get to yes,” says Sen. Max Baucus (D) of Montana, a six-term lawmaker famous for infuriating his fellow Democrats in his search for bipartisan solutions. “He reminds me of some of the greats who have been up here with us.”

The Volunteer State’s junior senator seems intent on generating plenty of positive momentum all by himself, taking on enough issues to stuff an ordinary member’s schedule for an entire career.

On the same day the Senate approved the immigration bill, Corker unveiled sweeping legislation with kindred spirit Sen. Mark Warner (D) of Virginia to wind down the government-sponsored housing goliaths, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. That bill, which would fundamentally reshape the American mortgage industry, has a bipartisan posse of six co-sponsors on the Senate Banking Committee.

Just before the final immigration vote, Corker broke away from the Capitol for lunch with a bipartisan, bicameral group of lawmakers led by Senator Baucus and Rep. Dave Camp (R) of Michigan to talk about another mega-goal: a comprehensive rewrite of the nation’s tax code.

In previous weeks, he’s been among Republican senators who met with Obama administration officials to lay the groundwork for negotiations to head off another calamitous showdown over the federal debt ceiling this fall. (He delivered his own 200-plus-page plan that would have cut the deficit by $4.5 trillion over the next decade, including $1 trillion in new tax revenue and a revamp of Medicare, to congressional leaders in the aftermath of the 2012 election.)

And as the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Corker and chairman Bob Menendez (D) of New Jersey are trying to reassert some congressional power in the foreign policy realm. Corker will soon travel overseas to investigate pressing American foreign policy issues, but the details of that trip are being withheld for security reasons.

“The executive branch has taken foreign policy totally over; Congress plays almost no role,” Corker says. “And, candidly, people in Congress like it that way because foreign policy issues don’t play so well back home sometimes and you’re never held accountable for the decisions that are made.”

Turning up at the right time

Whether judged by his workload over the past fortnight or in previous legislative successes such as playing a key role in shaping the bailout of America’s auto companies or crafting a chunk of the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill with Senator Warner, Corker has been able to cram so much onto his plate by, well, cramming.

Leaning on habits of study and research that helped him build two construction companies into a $20 million fortune (Corker donates the entirety of his Senate salary to the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga), his days are stuffed with briefings “nonstop,” he says.

As a junior member, Corker discovered, the only way to break through the Hill’s often-stultifying seniority system and get a seat at the table on pressing problems is to bring more intellectual and policy firepower than everybody else and hope for the best.

When a senator does not have a top committee post, “the only other way to really be involved is to know more than anybody else about a given topic,” he says. “You never know when the timing is going to hit in a such a way that you’re going to make a difference.”

His approach hasn’t gone unrecognized.

Warner, another executive-minded lawmaker (he was governor of Virginia) with a business background, sought out Corker after admiring how the Tennessean assiduously worked on the auto bailout, including opening direct lines of communication with auto executives. The two sat together at President Obama’s first inauguration and have been fast friends ever since.

Warner attributes Corker’s successes to a chief advantage that those with private-sector backgrounds have over colleagues who are steeped in politics.

“In politics, you can have a whole successful career where you simply point out what’s wrong with the other guy,” Warner says. “In business, no matter how good you are at criticizing the competition, if you didn’t put out a good product, you didn’t sell something, ultimately, you’d go out of business.”

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

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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