NASHVILLE — While Republican President-elect Donald Trump didn't pick Sen. Bob Corker as his secretary of state, the Tennessee Republican is in a powerful position to help call the shots on the man who is Trump's choice.
As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Corker was in the mix for the nation's top diplomatic post.
But Tuesday, the former Chattanooga mayor instead was offering his congratulations to Trump's choice, ExxonMobil Chairman and CEO Rex Tillerson.
Corker said his 19-member panel will begin hearings on the nominee in early January.
"Mr. Tillerson is a very impressive individual and has an extraordinary working knowledge of the world," Corker said in a statement. "I congratulate him on his nomination and look forward to meeting with him and chairing his confirmation hearing."
Weeks before Tillerson entered the picture, Corker had stated he didn't expect to be nominated by Trump. On Tuesday, he said, "I very much appreciated President-elect Trump calling me [Monday] to let me know that he would be nominating Rex Tillerson for secretary of state."
He added: "On a personal note, it has been an honor to be considered for secretary of state. I thoroughly enjoyed spending time with the president- elect and his team throughout this process and appreciate the deliberate manner in which he arrived at this decision. I look forward to working with him to move our country forward."
But Corker may have his hands full on Tillerson's nomination.
Even before Trump's decision became final, Trump's last-minute decision to add Tillerson to his list of potential nominees drew fire from some Republicans and Democrats.
One issue is Tillerson's personal relationship with Russian leader Vladimir Putin. It has upset several majority Republicans, including Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a Foreign Relations Committee member, who has already said he has "serious concerns" about Tillerson's nomination. But Rubio stopped short of saying he would not support him.
Republicans have only a razor-thin, 10-to-nine majority over Democrats on the panel in the new Congress that takes office next month.
Meanwhile, Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., have been critical of Tillerson, as well. A number of Democrats could be opposed. Republicans will have only a slender 52-48 majority in the Senate.
Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., who also sits on the Foreign Relations Committee, issued a somewhat cautious statement, saying Tillerson has "an impressive background with unique experience and extensive knowledge of working in a global environment."
Isakson congratulated Tillerson on his nomination. "I look forward to meeting with him during the confirmation process to learn more about how he views the world and America's national interests," he said.
Efforts to obtain a comment from Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., who also sits on Foreign Relations, were unsuccessful.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who doesn't sit on the Foreign Relations panel, offered an apparent noncommittal statement on Tillerson, noting he has led "one of the world's largest corporations with operations in about 50 countries, which requires an understanding of other countries and cultures.
"I look forward to hearing more from Mr. Tillerson about his plans to strengthen our partnerships with allies and how to deal with the threats from those who would harm our nation."
Corker surfaced as a potential pick for secretary of state earlier this year after he offered qualified praise for Trump's first major foreign policy address at a time when many Republican hawks were panning the businessman's views.
The chairman began offering Trump advice, and he later surfaced as a potential running mate. Corker appeared with Trump at a South Carolina rally before ruling himself out as not being suited for a vice presidential nominee role.
However, Corker did express interest in the secretary of state and Treasury posts.facebook
In a Times Free Press interview last month, Corker said if he wasn't Trump's pick for a cabinet post, "then it will be time to sit down and begin thinking about the future and what I ought to attempt to do."
The Nov. 4 election did make one thing clear: Democrats' efforts to retake the Senate fell flat. So Corker will be Foreign Relations chairman for at least another two years and, if he runs for a third Senate term in 2018 and wins, an additional two years if the GOP remains in control.
Asked about a 2018 Tennessee gubernatorial bid, Corker said in the interview, "The first thing we will do is sit down and think about what our future should or should not be in the United States Senate. And once that decision is made, the voters in our state are the ultimate deciders of these things.
"But you know, do we attempt to try to serve again? What we do is something that we'll certainly be thinking about over the course of the next several months," he added.
If Senate power shifts to Democrats in 2018, Corker would still have six years as the ranking GOP member on Foreign Relations.
He's also the third ranking Republican on the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee. Should he remain in the Senate, he could eventually be in line to become the top Republican on that panel, as well.
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.