Sen. Bob Corker explains why he missed Obama speech

9:23 PM, Aug 22, 2013   |    comments
File- U.S. Sen. Bob Corker / Sanford Myers / The Tennessean
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By Michael Cass / The Tennessean

U.S. Sen. Bob Corker said Thursday that he skipped President Barack Obama's speech last month in his hometown, Chattanooga, after the White House chief of staff sent him an advance copy of the text that morning and he decided it was simply "a political speech."

But Corker, a Republican, stressed that he's working closely with the Democratic president's administration to try to solve the nation's most pressing fiscal problems, which he described as the biggest threat to America's security. He said he knew he would be meeting with Obama two days after the July 30 event in Chattanooga, where the president talked about a "grand bargain" in which the federal government would cut the corporate tax rate, close tax loopholes and put more money into infrastructure.

"The speech was not about advancing a grand bargain at all," Corker said during a meeting with The Tennessean's editorial board. "He knew what he was doing in Chattanooga. I knew what he was doing in Chattanooga. It had nothing to do with what we were doing at the White House."

Corker also predicted that the House of Representatives would pass some version of immigration reform, which would allow a conference committee to hash out a compromise between the House legislation and the bill the Senate passed by a 68-32 vote in June.

"My gut is that there is an opportunity for us to get something done this fall," said Corker, whose border security amendment helped push the Senate bill over the top.

Earlier in the day, speaking at a lunch hosted by the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, the state's junior senator talked about the importance of using "smart power," a mix of force and diplomacy. He said the United States needs to cultivate a healthy relationship with China and "recalibrate" its relationship with Egypt, where fighting between the ruling military and the Muslim Brotherhood has led to 1,100 deaths since Aug. 14.

"I understand we've got to suspend some aid," he said. "The last thing we want to do, though, is cut off our ties."

The greatest threat? "It's us."

When an audience member asked about the greatest threat to national security, Corker's replied, "It's a no-brainer: It's us."

"Our inability to have the discipline and courage to deal with the fiscal issues our nation is dealing with right now is by far the greatest threat to our nation. Nothing else compares."

Corker is one of several GOP senators meeting regularly with White House officials to look for ways to replace the deep, automatic budget cuts known as sequestration with more targeted cuts. He described the White House chief of staff, Denis McDonough, who took the job in February, as "a breath of fresh air" who reaches out regularly to lawmakers, shows up on time and doesn't take disagreements personally.

Corker said the White House gave him the courtesy of sending over Obama's speech before the president left Washington for Chattanooga. He said he woke up that morning feeling uneasy about the prospect of not being present in his hometown, where he was mayor from 2001 to 2005. But once he and his chief of staff, Todd Womack, read the speech, he said, "I sort of figured my day job was important to do."

Corker and other Republicans were criticized for not appearing with Obama. But he said he's in the middle of almost every major issue in Washington, including budget reform.

The solution, he said, will be a bipartisan one that can get 27 to 30 Republican votes in the Senate, sending a message to the House that it's OK.

"We've got to have a centrist bill that creates pain on both sides," he said. "That's the only thing that's going to solve our nation's problems."

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