Describing himself as a "neo-pragmatist," Sen. Bob Corker told a group of CEOs Tuesday he was seeking to help find solutions to national issues and encouraged the leaders to work in a "more chorused" way across community sectors to do the same in his hometown.
"You guys elected me to solve problems and to deal with issues as they are, not ... over-the-top, crazy things, but to try to solve problems," the senator and former Chattanooga mayor said. "And when you try to solve problems, you end up being in the middle of a lot of controversy. I kind of like that."
Corker's proximity to the center of national issues, from current debate over a probable U.S. strike in Syria to impending fiscal battles to ongoing concerns over surveillance by the National Security Agency, were all on the table during his nearly hourlong remarks. The senator, who is ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, spent considerable time discussing his thought process behind supporting the idea of a "surgical, proportional" U.S. strike in Syria in response to the alleged use of chemical weapons by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad last week.
"Syria's actions are destabilizing the region," he said.
Corker added that although Syria alone may not seem to have direct bearing on U.S. national interests, the country's closeness to states like Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon could have long-term ramifications for the U.S.
He used recent U.S. investment in Iraq, as well as American dependence on the region's oil, as examples.
"What's happing in Syria, because they share a porous border [with Iraq], you have these militants that go back and forth across the border," he said. "And so Syria is certainly destabilizing Iraq, which does have oil and is much more important. And lets' face it—as much as Americans hate to say it because it bothers us so much, a disruption in oil that spikes up to $160, $170 or $200 a barrel, candidly, it affects us. And even though it's offensive to us, it's a fact. So they're important."
Corker also commented on the economic impact of refugees pouring into Syria's neighboring countries and later said he hoped top officials in President Barack Obama's administration would consider the possibility of a strike gone awry creating an even greater influx of displaced Syrians into the region.
"Done improperly and done in the wrong way, you could actually create some very adverse consequences," Corker said, speaking to reporters. "And that's the reason I think [the Obama administration is] spending so much time thinking this through and gathering evidence that [use of chemical weapons] actually has occurred."
Still, the senator said Syria appeared to have crossed a "red line" drawn months ago by Obama, meriting a forceful response. Corker added that neighboring countries, such as Iran, would be watching closely at how the U.S. executes a response in Syria, further obligating the White House to an appropriate response.
The senator was adamant that any response should not include U.S. troops on the ground and added that maintaining current dynamics of U.S. support and training for "vetted, moderate" rebel groups should continue.
"I think that is an appropriate role for us and for the international community," he said.
Regardless of how the situation plays out in coming days, Corker reiterated his desire for Congress to play a more prominent role in determining what U.S. action would look like. The senator said that although he understood he and others had been consulted by the White House under provisions of the War Powers Act, he would rather Congress return to Washington, D.C., and receive a full briefing on U.S. plans before casting an informed vote.
"Congress has been shielded from any kind of tough decision on foreign policy for far too long," he said.
Commenting on other issues, Corker said he was less than optimistic on the prospect of Congress and the White House reaching a significant deal this fall, when expected debates over a government funding bill and a raise in the U.S. debt ceiling are set to occur. Still, the senator said even the smallest prospect of a resolution was worth working toward because he views the nation's fiscal woes as the most prominent issue facing America.
"I'm below 50 percent on thinking that we're going to be able to do something really big," the senator said. "… But look, it is the biggest issue in our nation."
The senator, who has been among a group of eight Republican senators to attend regular meetings with top White House officials on fiscal issues, added his hope that House Republicans wouldn't "devolve" into approving a "political deal" that did not address spending reductions.
"There's not a lot of unity over there," he said.
The senator also offered some new developments in his recent call for a full Senate review of surveillance programs employed by the National Security Agency. After writing a letter to Obama last week bemoaning a constant trickle of revelations regarding the agency in the press, Corker said he had received communication from the White House yesterday seeking to arrange a meeting with NSA head Gen. Keith Alexander.
"My sense is as soon as we get back, I'm going to have a long, long meeting with the head of the NSA to go over every one of these programs from top to bottom, understand their intent and understand how we're providing appropriate oversight," Corker said.
The senator said he will return to Washington this afternoon and added that he planned to attend a classified briefing regarding the situation in Syria Thursday morning.
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