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Sen. Bob Corker is hardly the fire-breathing ideologue that North Carolina Republican Sen. Jesse Helms was during his tenure at the helm of the Foreign Relations Committee in the 1990s. Nor does he exude the cerebral statesmanship that Indiana GOP Sen. Dick Lugar did last decade, as well as for a short stint in the mid-’80s.
The Tennessee Senator, who could follow in the footsteps of these two legislative giants as only the third GOP chairman of the panel in the past 30 years, is much more of a pragmatist than either. And though not nearly as seasoned a lawmaker, he has ventured several times into the sometimes treacherous world of policy wonkdom and backroom deal-making. And like those other endeavors, his deepening foray into foreign policy finds him amid a chamber and a party that are deeply divided on the issue.
With polls showing Democrats with a good chance of retaining their Senate majority in the next Congress, it’s not clear whether Corker will, in fact, land the chairmanship of Foreign Relations. What is clear is that Lugar, the most senior Republican on the panel for more than a decade, is exiting this year after losing the Indiana Senate GOP primary and that Corker is next in line in terms of seniority to at least be the ranking member. He is prepared to make a bid for the post, and most observers on the Hill wager he will get it when Republican committee members vote to select their leaders after the elections.
During the past year Corker has beefed up his travel schedule. For example, he opted for a trip to Egypt and Turkey rather than Tampa, Fla., for the GOP convention in August, and in recent months he has been reaching out to the GOP foreign policy community in Washington, D.C., forming a sort of informal brain trust to prepare for a potentially expanded role.
By his staff’s count, he has now visited 48 foreign countries since taking office. “If you really want to know what’s happening, it’s imperative to do a good deal of travel,” Corker has said.
The Foreign Relations Committee gig is not Corker’s first play for a leading role in the GOP Senate caucus. With his background in business and finance and his post on the Senate Banking Committee, he made a bid to broker an auto bailout deal with Democrats in 2008. And in 2010, Corker spent weeks working with then-Senate Banking Chairman Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) to find consensus on Wall Street reform. Both efforts fell through when Corker couldn’t bring other Republicans on board. Both damaged his reputation with Democrats, who viewed him as smart and enthusiastic about compromise but someone who represented a negotiating dead end when it came to convincing other Republicans to join him.
The plainspoken Senator — who is not shy about publicly zinging Democrats as well as his own party from time to time — seems to be gaining more traction on foreign affairs than he did in either attempt at bipartisanship on financial issues.
Arizona Sen. John McCain, ranking member on the Armed Services Committee, said all of Corker’s travel and the knowledge he’s gained from it has made him an influential voice on international affairs among Senate Republicans. “The respect is certainly there,” McCain said.
Corker himself acknowledged in a recent interview that he entered the Senate with little in the way of foreign policy experience. His career was spent in the construction and real estate business, as well as local and state politics. Before running for the Senate, he was mayor of Chattanooga.
Since joining the Foreign Relations Committee in 2007 — a post he requested — he has set about steeping himself in key international policy matters and trying to work with and learn from Members on both sides of the aisle who share his particular interests.
In addition to regular travel, he has been a fixture on the dais at Foreign Relations hearings. Corker says he makes an effort to “listen very intently to what people are saying” at those hearings — then reach out to those colleagues down the line when the opportunity to team up presents itself.
“At the moment he’s in the kind of sweet spot,” said Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow Elliott Abrams, a former adviser to President George W. Bush on Middle East issues, who is among the experts Corker has reached out to this fall.
Abrams said Corker is “well-versed” about an array of international issues, “but he doesn’t think he’s a great expert, so he’s a very good listener and a very good questioner.”
That studiousness has earned him kudos from a number of his Senate colleagues — even from those who tend to have different worldviews.
“I just appreciated Bob’s seriousness, his willingness to really dig down and understand issues and also take a very objective view of things,” retiring Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) said. “And sometimes he reaches conclusions that are a little different than mine.”
The defense hawk and Corker worked together to push for increases in nuclear weapons modernization funding as part of the 2010 negotiations with the White House on the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. Kyl ultimately voted against the treaty; Corker was one of just 13 Republicans to support it.
It is significant that lawmakers such as Kyl and McCain are such Corker boosters, given that they represent the neoconservative — or as Abrams calls it, “activist” — wing of the GOP. Despite often being at odds with them on policy, Corker needs their support in his Foreign Relations bid to help fend off charges from some conservatives that he’s been too moderate. Besides his vote for START, Corker’s record includes working with Democrats such as Sen. Jim Webb (Va.) on war powers issues and Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry (Mass.) on U.S. efforts to rebuild Haiti.
Of course, Lugar has made similar bipartisan efforts on foreign policy, without inviting the ire of hawks, although it diminished his influence in the caucus over time.
While McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) have been shouting from the rooftops for airstrikes in first Libya and now Syria, Corker has been one of the biggest naysayers on Arab Spring interventions. He also has questioned the worth of staying in Afghanistan and of continuing to provide assistance to Pakistan.
At the same time, he joined with McCain, Graham and others on the Senate floor this year to speak in defense of foreign aid funds against deep cuts that were proposed by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and supported by other tea party Republicans.
That leads policy analysts such as Abrams to conclude he does not fit any of the traditional categories of international relations theory — realist, internationalist, isolationist or neocon. “He’s not an ideologue,” Abrams said simply.
His skepticism of military adventurism after more than a decade of war also happens to reflect where many in the GOP — and the country at large — are at right now, somewhere between the poles of McCain and Paul.
In that sense, Abrams said, “he’s right in the center of the Republican Party.”