Corker Says Constituents and "Common Sense" Come Before Political Loyalties 

In a visit to Shelby County Wednesday, Bob Corker, the Republican who was elected to the U.S. Senate last year over Democrat Harold Ford Jr. in a tight race that drew ample national attention, made it clear that partisan issues are the least of his concerns.

Both in a luncheon address to Rotarians at the Germantown Country Club and in remarks to reporters afterward, former Chattanooga mayor Corker emphasized a "common sense" approach in which "I strive to make sure that everybody in the state is proud of the way I conduct myself...to understand issues as they really are, devoid of some of the rhetoric that surrounds these issues...[and] the political whims of the day."

Take his response when asked whether embattled GOP senator Larry Craig, busted in the infamous "wide stance" airport-restroom case, should resign for the good of the Republican Party:

Corker said Craig's predicament was a matter for the "people of Idaho" and the Senate Ethics Committee. "I don't try to get into all the political ramifications of this or that. The way to get a whole lot more done is to focus on issues." Somewhat disdainfully, he added, "There are all these messaging amendments that we do, all about making one side look bad and the other side look good. Democrats do it, and Republicans do it. It's a total waste of time."

Helping The Med

As to how that even-handed outlook affected his stand on issues, Corker was explicit. He talked of applying pressure on the Administration, especially on recent health-care issues he considered urgent for his constituents. "I know for a fact that I played a huge role in this [latest] TennCare waiver thing. I have to say I had to put a hold on the Bush nominations to make it happen. I thought it was important for our state."

And there was his vote and enthusiastic support recently to expand SChip (the federal State Children's Health Insurance Program) so as to increase funding for Tennessee by $30 million and to permit Medicaid payments for patients at The Med from Arkansas and Mississippi. Both Corker and Tennessee GOP colleague Lamar Alexander strongly supported the bill, which passed but was vetoed last week by President Bush.

"I was glad to have worked out these issues that have plagued the Med for so long. It's ridiculous that people from Arkansas and Mississippi have used the facility for so long and don't pay for it. What's the logic in that?" Corker said, vowing to try to get the Med-friendly provisions re-established in a veto-proof compromise measure yet to be fashioned.

Corker made a pitch for the Every American Insured Health Act, a bill he has sponsored that, he said, would modify the tax code so as to guarantee universal access to private health insurance "but would not add a penny to the national deficit."

Contending that "what I'm trying to do is to add to the equation a real debate, a real solution," the senator said his proposal had been "slammed" on the same day by both a conservative columnist and a liberal columnist, leading him to conclude, "I'm pretty sure we got it just about right."

Corker said that executives of key national corporations, saddled with large health-care costs for their employees, were "waling the halls of Congress trying to get us to move to a government-run system so they can alleviate. that expense which makes them non-competitive." Without some alternative form of universal access, he said, such a government-run system was inevitable.

With 800,000 Tennesseans and 47 million Americans lacking health-care coverage, there was also a "moral obligation" to make coverage universal, Corker stressed.

Relations with Iran and Syria

As a member of both the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee and the body's Armed Services committee, Corker says he is focusing hard on issues relating to war-torn Iraq, a country he has visited twice, and neighboring Iran, subject of much speculation these days concerning possible future hostilities between that country and the U.S.

Here again, the senator stressed his determination to maintain independence of judgment. "I've had some very tense moments with this administration - in the first two months I was up there [in Washington] especially. There were some underwhelming meetings."

Corker is dubious about the current political leadership of Iraq {"things cannot go on as they are") but supportive for the time being of the current military strategy of General David Petraeus, with whom he stays in contact.

On Iran, Corker said there was "some concern in the Senate that the president might take action" and emphasized that "he [Bush]would have to have Senate authority to do that." Corker reminded reporters that after his election he had said on CBS' Face the Nation that diplomatic negotiations with both Syria and Iran were necessary.

"We don't want to overplay our hand in Iran," he said. "There's a group of people there who want to be our friends. If we move into Iran unilaterally others [in the region] will step back from being our friends."

Corker, who was a construction executive before entering politics, related the current diplomatic situation to his experience in labor-management negotiations in Tennessee. "If you don't talk with your enemies they remain your enemies. There's a lot to be learned just to be in somebody's presence," he said.

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