Despite disappointment over Syria, Corker to work with White House on other issues

WASHINGTON -- You might think someone who excoriates President Barack Obama for his handling of Syria and questions his ability to lead would no longer be interested in dealing with the White House.

But Republican Sen. Bob Corker, who brokered real estate deals in an earlier life, said he'd like to keep working with the president on a raft of thorny issues facing the nation.

"I'm a businessman and I want to solve problems," the former Chattanooga mayor said Friday. "And part of solving problems is working with the folks who are going to play a leading role in helping make that happen, and the White House is going to continually play some role in that."

Two days earlier, Corker was slamming Obama. He said the president's "muddled" speech on Syria Tuesday and the indecisive way he's dealt with that country's apparent use of chemical weapons against its own people has hurt U.S. credibility abroad and diminished Obama's stature on Capitol Hill.

"The president just seems to be very uncomfortable being commander in chief of this nation," Corker told CNN.

On Friday, Corker said he doesn't regret those words. But he is ready to move on, basically because there's no choice.

"The country has decided who our president's going to be for the next three years and most of these issues cannot possibly be dealt with without some level of involvement from the executive branch," he said. "It's not like you can take your football and go home."

The president doesn't seem to be dwelling on it either. At least not publicly.

Asked about Corker's comments, White House spokesman Jay Carney declined to address them specifically. But he did defend what he called Obama's willingness to be patient when events rapidly unfurl.

"I would simply say that when it comes to being a commander in chief, I think that the American people, at least in my assessment, appreciate a commander in chief who takes in new information and doesn't celebrate decisiveness for the sake of decisiveness," Carney told reporters.

Defenders of the president say events moved quickly that day due to Russian President Vladimir Putin's offer to send monitors to Syria to find and destroy the arsenal of chemical weapons. And Obama's decision to delay a vote for military authorization in both the House and Senate came amid signs that Congress was likely to reject the proposal.

Harsh words are not uncommon between Washington politicians. Much of the time, the rhetoric belies the cooperation those very same lawmakers are hammering out quietly, congressional observers say.

When former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former President Bill Clinton came to Capitol Hill four years ago for the unveiling of former Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott's portrait, Clinton said a lot was accomplished behind closed doors in the 1990s despite politically charged impeachment proceedings against him.

"The world would be amazed to know what good chemistry Newt and Trent and I had in private," Clinton said.

Senate historian Donald A. Ritchie said it's only natural there would be friction when individuals of different political stripes and interests congregate in one place.

"But when people need each others' votes, it's remarkable how much they can find reasons to get together," he said.

The relationship between Corker and Obama seemed to transcend the partisan divide gripping Washington.

The Tennessee senator is part of a cadre of GOP senators who meets regularly with the president or other administration officials to discuss issues of mutual interest. He's also golfed with Obama. And last month, Corker was described by a White House spokeswoman as someone who can "routinely put aside party politics and work to make progress on the priorities of the nation's middle-class families."

Corker's amendment earlier this year to beef up border security is credited with helping the Senate pass an immigration reform bill that's one of Obama's top priorities. And as the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Corker hustled to help pass a resolution last week that would grant Obama authority for a limited military strike against Syria.

Corker also is in regular contact with White House Chief of Staff Dennis McDonough. But when the senator fired off a terse email to McDonough Wednesday expressing his disappointment with the president's speech -- and how it was different from what he told senators earlier that day -- there was no reply.

Corker thinks it's because the White House knows the president fumbled the moment.

"The fact that he didn't respond speaks to the fact that I think he knows that I know they retreated from the argument they were going to make at one point," Corker said.

Norm Ornstein, a congressional expert at the American Enterprise Institute, said Corker went "way overboard" with his comments on the president. But he said he would be stunned if this meant the end of their relationship.

"Obama's not going to say: 'Screw you Corker. I won't try and work out a compromise on fiscal policy because you said bad things about me' " Ornstein said. "Nor is Corker, who now especially is in full problem-solving mode. He wants to do good things. He wants to do big things. And he's not going to lose that desire as a consequence of Syria."

It's not clear whether the relationship between Corker and the president will be as chummy as it once seemed to be. The Tennessee senator is not waiting for an invitation to golf again anytime soon.

"I doubt my phone rings after some of the comments," he said. "It probably won't ring over the weekend."


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