WASHINGTON — One recent afternoon, reporters swarmed U.S. Sen. Bob Corker in a hallway outside the Senate chamber. The throng was so thick that Capitol police had to move people aside to make room for Corker’s colleagues to pass.
The media crush came because the Tennessee Republican and former Chattanooga mayor was a key player in the high-stakes multibillion-dollar fight over debit card swipe fees. Corker’s side lost that skirmish on the Senate floor.
But another step the senator took that same week may have been more important, both to his future and to that of the broader Republican agenda: He teamed up with U.S. Sen. James Webb, D-Va., to introduce a resolution that criticized the Obama administration for its handling of the military operation in Libya.
“I find it unbelievable that the president would seek the approval of the United Nations and the Arab League for military operations over Libya while sidelining the body that speaks for the American people, not even answering our questions,” Corker said on the Senate floor. “This is not consultation, nor is the president heeding the concerns of his own constituents.”
Last week, he pressed his case on Libya, calling for hearings and criticizing Obama’s response to questions about the justification for U.S. involvement.
Corker’s pronouncements on Libya, Afghanistan and other U.S. entanglements abroad are crucial, because although he’s known mostly for his forays into domestic economic policy, he is also the second-ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee. If Republicans do well in November 2012, Corker could become the panel’s chairman.
The current top Republican, U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar, is one of his party’s most experienced voices on foreign policy issues. But he’s being challenged in Indiana, facing a tough fight in the 2012 Republican primary. If Lugar loses, Corker could succeed him. (Because of the Senate GOP’s complicated term-limit rules, Corker could move up in 2013 to the top post even if Lugar is re-elected — as long as Republicans remain in the minority.)
Corker’s ascent is far from certain. He is also up for re-election next year, and even if he wins and has the opportunity to move up, Corker could decide to focus his attention elsewhere.
Foreign Relations would be an odd perch, given that Corker is better known for having played key roles in the debates over financial reform, health care and the auto industry bailout. He is known for his willingness to work with Democrats, a relatively rare trait in the modern Senate.
“The first stage is to be re-elected,” Corker said when asked about his committee ambitions. “I’m working on that hard.”
Corker ran his own construction and real estate companies and then served as mayor of Chattanooga before being elected to the Senate in 2006. He acknowledges that he never showed much interest in international issues before joining the Foreign Relations panel, though he does credit a mission trip to Haiti in his late 20s with sparking his desire to do public service.