Corker Pops Into Spotlight

Posted December 12, 2008 at 6:19pm

When most Senate Republicans refused to go anywhere near negotiations on an auto industry bailout, freshman Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) jumped into the fray and positioned himself as a dealmaker on the most pressing economic issue facing Congress.

Corker appears an unlikely choice to take on Democrats and the White House in negotiations among the most delicate of the 110th Congress; he’s been in the Senate for only two years and is the most junior member of the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee.

But those who have followed the plain-spoken Senator’s career in Tennessee politics say they are not surprised.

“It will never surprise me to see him take on a big issue, whether it’s the popular thing to do or not,” said Tom Ingram, a former Tennessee reporter and political operative who now serves as chief of staff for Senate GOP Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.). “He’s a true conservative Republican, but he’s not hung up on that.”

Corker’s star turn probably would have been impossible if Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Banking ranking member Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) or any of the other eight GOP committee members who outrank Corker had stepped into the spotlight.

Although Corker was in the room on initial talks for the $700 billion financial industry rescue package earlier this fall, he was quickly eclipsed by more senior Members as well as by McConnell’s decision to tap Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) as his proxy for talks with Democrats and the Treasury Department. They didn’t step forward in this bailout proposal with its tricky politics.

“I still think he would have been putting his two cents in,” said one Tennessee GOP political operative. Even as mayor of Chattanooga, the operative said, “He’s always been hands-on and engaged — wanting to get in the weeds and not wanting to delegate.”

When automakers came to Congress asking for billion-dollar loans, Republicans interested in brokering a deal were difficult to find. McConnell said last week he and other Republicans declined invitations from the White House and Democrats to join the negotiations because they were convinced they would not be able to support any legislation that emerged from those talks.

And when Democrats and the White House presented their deal to Republicans last week, it was nearly uniformly rejected by GOP Senators. Corker’s last-minute efforts — when a GOP-led filibuster appeared inevitable without changes to the bill — fell short, as Republicans rejected the negotiators’ final offer and the bill failed to get the 60 votes necessary to move it forward.

Still, Corker received praise from both sides of the aisle for his efforts to find a compromise that Senate Republicans could support.

Banking Chairman Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) said Corker’s willingness to deal was admirable, but his junior status appeared to play a factor in his inability to get his colleagues to buy in.

“You’ll hear no criticisms from me on how Bob Corker handled himself. I just regret that the leadership having sent him on this mission was not willing to respect him when he came back outlining the parameters of something he thought might get us a deal,” Dodd said Friday. “And if perfection was supposed to be his goal, he was sent on a mission he could never complete.”

Dodd indicated he would likely work with Corker again in the next Congress.

“Early on, I discovered in Bob Corker someone who does his homework, is very pragmatic, likes to get results, and he and I have become very good friends and have worked closely together on a number of issues,” Dodd said.

Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and McConnell also lauded Corker’s efforts before the vote that killed the bill for the year.

During his postmortem press conference following the collapse of the auto bill talks, Corker’s wonkish leanings were on display, as he walked reporters through the complicated aspects of the deal while dismissing political concerns out of hand. Asked about the politics of the vote, Corker waived off the question, saying, “I did not participate in the press conference … where people said they were going to filibuster it. I came here to solve problems.”

Similarly, Corker rejected the idea of a “car czar” who would oversee auto company restructuring as a superficial response to the crisis.

“I’m sure there’s someone out there who’s tired of playing golf and gin rummy at the country club” who would take the job, Corker quipped, adding that the idea of a car czar is a reflection of America’s fascination with personality over substance. “I find it somewhat silly,” he said.

Democrats and the White House had agreed to a bill that would extend $14 billion in loans to automakers while allowing the car czar to determine if they had solid plans for restructuring. Corker attempted to put more specific restructuring goals on car companies and unions. His bill, which served as the basis for the Senate’s negotiating session Thursday, would have required bondholders to write down the debt owed by the companies and would have forced union workers at domestically owned plants to accept a pay reduction that would put them on par with workers at foreign-owned plants in the United States.

To sell his measure to stakeholders, he did much of the legwork himself, calling United Auto Workers President Ron Gettelfinger and others.

“I have talked to Ron Gettelfinger this morning. Because of the debates we have had recently, I am probably not on his Christmas card list this year. I realize that. But he actually is talking with his leaders about this,” Corker said on the floor Thursday. “I have talked to the COO at General Motors last night and this morning. … He agrees this will work.”

Still, the sticking point became the union pay scale and when it would go into effect. While unions agreed to language that would force them to accept a pay scale that was “competitive” with foreign carmakers, Republicans felt the deal did not require enough concessions from organized labor.

Corker was apparently willing to accept the union’s language, but he denied that he ever intended to press his Conference to accept the proposal that emerged from Thursday’s talks.

“I wanted to give a report to our guys,” he said, explaining that once union officials refused to agree to a date certain for changes, it was clear there would be no deal.

“I went in and shared with our Conference where we were,” Corker said, adding that if a date had been agreed to, “we would have passed something with 90 votes. … [But] our members felt there had to be some way in the future to get to where we want to be.”

In the end, Corker said, “I didn’t even try to sell it. I tried to present it as a neutral deal. [Democrats] knew when I left there was absolutely no chance.”

John Stanton contributed to this report.