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Washington prepares for the rise of Bob Corker

Washington prepares for the rise of Bob Corker

No matter how the election turns out, Tennessee’s Bob Corker is likely to be the next top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and the entire GOP foreign-policy establishment is gearing up for that now.

With the departure of Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking Republican Richard Lugar (R-IN), who lost his primary race in May, Corker is next in line, and could even become chairman should Republicans take control of the Senate. The ultimate decision is made by the GOP caucus, and while aides caution that nothing is final, Republicans are preparing Corker to be one of their party’s leading figures on international affairs.

Not all Republicans are thrilled about Corker assuming control of the GOP side of the committee, however, and there was grumbling at first. Neoconservatives and hawks note that Corker has been a moderate voice on foreign policy as a committee member, often expressing a more cautious and non-interventionist note than some of his more hawkish colleagues, and has bucked the GOP leadership in some cases, such as when he voted in favor of Obama’s nuclear arms treaty with Russia, New START, at the end of 2010.

But Corker has been quietly and doggedly reaching out to Republican foreign policy hands of all stripes, meeting them for briefings, salon dinners, and one-on-one encounters, both to hear their views and assure them he will represent the entire caucus if he gets the nod.

In an interview with The Cable, Corker said he wants the job, that he has been making preliminary preparations just in case he gets it, and that he has a vision of restoring the committee to a place of renewed prominence in the foreign-policy discussion in Washington and around the world.

"We understand the decision about who leads the Foreign Relations Committee is up to the caucus, but in the event I end up being the person, quietly we’ve done a significant amount of travel throughout the world to understand issues more deeply, we’ve had meetings and briefings with numbers of people with varying backgrounds and have really tried to immerse ourselves in such a way that if I am the person, I have the ability to be effective," Corker said.

Without much fanfare, Corker has visited 48 countries since taking office, often traveling commercial. He has been to Syria, Lebanon, Libya, India, Russia, Georgia, Afghanistan (3 times), Pakistan (3 times), and Iraq (3 times). Here in Washington, he’s been meeting with conservatives and realists alike. Some of his briefings and social events have been organized by the American Enterprise Institute’s Danielle Pletka, a former staffer for SRFC chairman Jesse Helms, who declined to comment for this article.

Corker has also been thinking hard about new professionals to bring on to the SFRC, be it on the majority or minority staff. Several of Lugar’s aides have already departed, and Corker could be building a new team largely from scratch. Right now, Corker is advised on national security primarily by Stacie Oliver, a former staffer for Sen. Chuck Hagel, but he will need a lot more help if and when he becomes a committee leader.

His charm offensive seems to be working. A top GOP foreign-policy hand who was initially wary of Corker said his outreach seems to be convincing even hawkish Republicans that they will have the senator’s ear and that Corker would represent the whole caucus, not just its moderate wing.

"Senator Corker’s team has done a good job of reaching out to the conservative foreign-policy community and outlining his goals for the committee if he is given the opportunity to serve in a leadership role," the GOP foreign-policy hand said.

Corker is careful not to be too presumptuous about getting the job. One senior GOP senator and avowed hawk, James Inhofe (R-OK), is known to oppose the idea. Inhofe’s office did not respond to requests for comment, but multiple GOP Senate aides told The Cable that Inhofe has been considering challenging Corker’s ascendancy when the issue comes to a head after the election.

The Cable has learned that Inhofe actually mounted a challenge to Lugar after the 2010 election, forcing a vote among the SFRC Republican members that Lugar narrowly won. Inhofe hasn’t yet decided whether to try that again with Corker, but this time the internal caucus politics are more complicated than they were two years ago.

Inhofe, who is on the SFRC, may not want to take the ranking job on that committee because he is slated to be the ranking Republican of the Senate Armed Services Committee next year now that Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) has reached his term limit. Inhofe is next in line and would naturally prefer a leadership role on SASC, which is far more powerful than the SFRC.

If Inhofe did want to challenge Corker, he would need a proxy to support. The natural candidates are Sen. James Risch (R-ID) and rising star Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL). But nothing could be done until at least December and as time goes by, the enthusiasm for mounting a fight against Corker is waning, Senate aides said.

Corker’s foreign-policy views are often much more cautious than those of the Senate GOP caucus as a whole. Earlier this year, for example, he questioned whether the Syrian revolution was really about "democracy." In April, he worked to make sure Congress was not endorsing lethal aid to the Syrian opposition and actively supporting the ouster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

"I think it’s odd to state as a national policy that we want to see Assad gone," Corker said.

His vote for New START was attacked by the conservative Heritage Foundation. He authored an amendment to the Magnitsky bill that would have placed sunsets on the penalties for Russian human rights violators. He later withdrew that amendment.

More recently, however, Corker has been aggressive in challenging the Obama administration to be more transparent and forthcoming about the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. He is also pushing for an independent congressional investigation into the matter.

Corker’s style is usually not confrontational. He opposed ratifying the Law of the Sea Treaty last year, but initially declined to sign a letter joined by dozens of Senate Republicans outright opposing the treaty, instead arguing that it was simply not a priority for the Senate in 2012.

One concern some colleagues have about Corker is whether he would challenge Obama’s nominees, should the president be reelected. Corker, who touts his experience as a former executive in business, often defers to the president’s prerogative over personnel and has only voted against Obama nominees twice. He is likely to use the power to hold nominees sparingly, but is expected to make sure that nominations that he does hold are duly spiked.

Corker told The Cable that his main project would be make sure the SFRC is fulfilling its mandate of overseeing foreign policy and guiding the State Department’s activities. He pledged to make sure the Senate passes a State Department authorization bill, something that hasn’t happened since 2005. He also wants the committee to do big thinking over the horizon.

"I hope to be able to work with others to make the Foreign Relations Committee more relevant. We want to review everything that’s being done at the State Department, which hasn’t been done in decades," he said. "In regard to our national interests, the Foreign Relations Committee could be a place where we look at our national interests in the context of the longer view and be a buffer against the ‘hair on fire’ mentality that can exist in White Houses."

For the GOP foreign-policy community, that would be a welcome development.

"There is a lot of interest on and off the Hill in seeing SFRC become a committee once again that senators aspire to serve on, that doesn’t pull its punches, and fulfills its oversight responsibilities after years of drift," the GOP foreign-policy hand said.