Knoxville News Sentinel: Bob Corker: Always on the run

Oct 28, 2007

WASHINGTON - Daybreak is settling in slowly over the city when Bob Corker sets out on his morning run.

He takes off from his apartment in downtown Washington a little past 6:30, sprints a few blocks through mostly empty streets, then turns right onto the National Mall.

In the distance, he can see the obelisk that is the Washington Monument. To his back, the dome of the U.S. Capitol rises against a sky of pink clouds that turn burnt orange as darkness gives way to daylight.

The three-mile jog is a morning ritual for Corker, a rare moment of solitude before the intrusion of the hectic workday ahead.

It has been a year since the former Chattanooga mayor won one of the most closely watched Senate races in the country and nearly 10 months since he was sworn into office. But Corker hasn't slowed down yet. As Tennessee's newest senator and only freshman Republican senator elected in 2006, he is always on the run.

In his first few weeks on the job, Corker dashed from one meeting to another, sometimes attending 25 or more a day. The nonstop pace left him feeling frustrated and ineffective.

"I didn't feel like I was making any difference at all," he said.

He's more organized now. He has learned that, instead of trying to sit in on one meeting after another, his time is better spent identifying issues that may come up down the road. He and his staff then spend a lot of time on policy briefings on those subjects so that whenever the debate begins, he's ready.

"It's really like getting an MBA in many different topics," Corker said.

It was an important lesson in the way the Senate works, one of many Corker has learned on the job.

Around May, he began to feel more comfortable in the role of senator and started to sense that he was engaged in issues in a way in which he could make a difference.

A Republican, he predictably stood with President Bush during some battles, most notably the war in Iraq.

Not long after he took office, he was summoned to the White House for a couple of meetings about the war. Though the administration's explanation for some of its policy decisions left him "somewhat underwhelmed," he ultimately went along with Bush's plan to send in more troops. During the next few months, he urged skeptics to give the change in military strategy time to work.

On other issues, Corker has been a bit of a rebel.

He backed an energy bill that his fellow Republicans tried to kill. He went against the White House and supported the expansion of a health insurance program for children.

He tangled with the administration again over TennCare, the state's health care program for low-income children, pregnant women and people with disabilities. He got personally involved in negotiations with the federal government over a waiver that was needed to renew the program. When he felt that the administration was dragging its feet, he played hardball, halting confirmation proceedings for all of Bush's nonmilitary nominees until the matter was satisfactorily resolved.

Now that he has several months of on-the-job experience and is beginning to know how Washington works, Corker says he feels more privileged to serve in the Senate than he did the day he was sworn in.

"The reason is, every day that goes by, I see how the policies that we put into place don't just affect Tennessee and our country," he said. "They affect the entire world."

The demands of the job

To understand what he means, just follow him around for a day.

On one recent Tuesday, less than an hour after he finished up his morning run, Corker was sitting down with other senators at a bipartisan breakfast meeting. The subject was the farm bill, a controversial law that is up for renewal this year. The law is supposed to govern the nation's farm policy but has been expanded over the years to take in other programs such as agriculture trade, conservation and food stamps.

"We went through the farm bill and talked about everything but farming," an amused Corker informed a small gathering of Tennesseans an hour later.

The group of constituents was visiting Washington and had stopped in for coffee and doughnuts with Corker and the state's senior senator, Lamar Alexander. The senators host the monthly "Tennessee Tuesday" reception for whoever from back home happens to be in Washington at the time.

Next on Corker's schedule was a closed-door meeting of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where he and other lawmakers on the panel received an update on security in the Persian Gulf.

Later in the day, there was a weekly policy luncheon with other Republican senators, a meeting with a couple of health care administrators from Chattanooga, and a briefing with a GOP task force that is working on health care issues.

Between meetings, Corker was back in his office near the Capitol, going line by line over a letter that would go out to 500 of his constituents. Corker estimates that his office has sent out more than 180,000 pieces of correspondence since he was sworn in. He personally signs off on each one.

"I think it's important for people to have a relationship with their senator, to know their senator, to know what they are like," he said. "And I think it's very important for them to be able to communicate directly with their senator."

To that end, Corker set out in February to tour all of the state's 95 counties. He started out in Sevier County and finished up two weeks ago with a town hall meeting in Monroe County. He went wherever he could draw a crowd - at Rotary Club meetings, at popular little diners, at county courthouses.

He heard farmers talk about the freeze last winter and the drought last summer. He heard about the war in Iraq. And he got lots of questions from people who were just curious about how a former mayor was adjusting to life in Congress.

"I truly enjoyed doing it," Corker said, adding that the conversation was good for the state and good for him as a senator. "It's the thing that keeps you from developing a beltway mentality," he said.

Data and debates

Those who know Corker best doubt that he'll ever succumb to Potomac Fever, the malady that afflicts some politicians and causes them to lose touch with reality once they arrive in Washington.

"Oftentimes, people will go to Washington and they feel like they've just got to be in the headlines and be on every talk show the minute they get there," said Susan Williams, a longtime friend of Corker and former chairwoman of the Tennessee Republican Party. "Bob is a real different person from that prototypical politician. Bob, he is really a man who likes to make things happen."

While Corker could hardly be labeled a maverick, "he is clearly his own guy," said Jimmy Haslam, who was Corker's roommate at the University of Tennessee and served as his finance chairman during last year's campaign.

"He likes data," said Haslam, chief executive officer of Pilot Corp., which runs a chain of convenience stores and travel centers. "If you've ever been in a meeting with him, Bob will ask a tremendous amount of questions to make sure he has a good grasp of the issues. He's not the kind of guy to get bogged down in minutia. But on the other hand, he likes facts and details."

He also likes using facts and details to persuade others to his way of thinking. Corker tells a story about how he passionately argued for a health care proposal during a luncheon with other Senate Republicans.

"As I walked out, this senator from the Northeast says, 'Corker, I wish that you would quit tormenting us with logic,' " Corker recalled. "And I thought, 'This is exactly what I came here to do.' "

What he didn't come to Washington to do, he said, was get his name on bills. While he has signed on to several pieces of legislation authored by other senators, he has been the lead sponsor on just a handful of bills, the most noteworthy being a proposal that would guarantee all Americans access to affordable health insurance through the free market.

"I'm not going to be a guy that presents a bill on the floor every week," Corker said. "That's just not who I am. I feel like much more of a policy person. ... I want to shape the direction of this country. What I don't want to do is just law it to death."

Assessing the new senator
Like any politician, Corker has his critics.

Wade Munday, a spokesman for the Tennessee Democratic Party, said Corker preached moderation and bipartisanship on the campaign trail but has practiced partisan politics in office.

As an example, he cited Corker's refusal to back an amendment by Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., that would have given troops more time at home between deployments to Iraq. Democrats lobbied Corker to support the proposal, and, at one point, he seemed to be seriously considering doing so. In the end, however, he refused, and the amendment went down to defeat.

Corker also caught flak from some Republicans for voting to increase funding for the State Children's Health Insurance Program by $35 billion over the next five years. The White House had wanted a $5 billion increase, and President Bush vetoed the bill.


For Corker, the decision to support the larger increase wasn't a difficult one.

"I thought it was the right thing to do," he said. "The Bush administration absolutely knew that $5 billion was not enough to fund the program. I found that to be somewhat disingenuous to say they wanted SCHIP to be extended but not fund it with enough money."

Besides, "If I have to make a call - a close call - on something, I'm going to err on the side of people, of low-income citizens in particular, having access to health care," he said.

Corker's performance in office has earned him praise from some unexpected places.

Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat, said Corker's involvement in the TennCare negotiations and his decision to stand up to the Bush administration was pivotal in securing the federal waiver for the program.

"Bob Corker, I think because of his previous service as (Tennessee's) chief financial officer, just knew the subject forwards and backwards," Bredesen told reporters in Nashville earlier this month. "He absolutely laid down on the track. We would not have nearly as good a deal today without Bob Corker laying down on the track the way that he did."

Likewise, Brian Harris, president of Tennessee Right to Life, recently wrote Corker a letter thanking him for supporting anti-abortion issues in the Senate.

The organization had endorsed one of Corker's opponents in the GOP primary last year and refused to back Corker even after he won the Republican nomination. Harris even went so far as to call him "pro-abortion," partly because of comments Corker made in 1994 that he personally opposed abortion but didn't think it was the government's place to get involved.

Corker now says he was wrong and that he opposes abortion except in cases of rape or incest or when the mother's life is in danger. And in the Senate, he has supported legislation backed by the anti-abortion movement. For instance, he co-sponsored an amendment that prohibited federal funds from going to organizations that perform or promote abortion as a method of family planning.

"He has not only voted for life, he has led on the pro-life issue," Harris said. "That is the kind of leadership Tennessee Right to Life and the state's pro-life movement are looking for."

Ask Corker how long he'd like to stay in the Senate and he insists he's not looking that far into the future. He won't face re-election for another five years, so for now, he said, his focus is on what he can accomplish in the next year.

"I see this next year as a year to say, 'Look, we've laid a tremendous foundation. Let's really focus on some areas where we can make a greater difference than we have made in this last year.'

"It's exciting to me to think about having a full year behind us."

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