STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Now, any day now, bipartisan negotiators in the Senate are expected to bring out a bill that will rewrite the rules governing Wall Street. If and when that happens, a lot of the credit for keeping the talks alive will go to the junior senator from Tennessee. His name is Bob Corker. He is not the top Republican on the banking committee, he is not a longtime dealmaker, but this is not his first go-around when it comes to bipartisan compromise, nor is it likely to be his last.
NPR's Audie Cornish has this profile.
AUDIE CORNISH: Bob Corker started his career by founding a construction company in Tennessee at age 25 with $8,000. He eventually became a wealthy real estate developer and the mayor of Chattanooga. He says Congress was never on his radar.
Senator BOB CORKER (Republican, Tennessee): Oh no. I was embarrassed when I went and told my parents that I was thinking about running for public office. No, I, you know, this - look, I started working when I was 13. I'd always expected to be in business. I respected businesspeople, okay?
CORNISH: The Senate, however, put Corker on the opposite side of the hearing table from the business world. Here he is at a banking committee hearing last year, with automakers.
Sen. CORKER: Let me ask you this: I mean, would y'all make the pledge that if you get the 25 billion you'll never be back to see us again?
Unidentified Man: Well, I think...
Sen. CORKER: I don't think you're under oath...
CORNISH: Corker was knee-deep in the talks for bailing out the car companies. He also worked with the so-called Gang of 10 for a compromise on energy legislation. Neither of those efforts worked out. Now, Corker's jumped in on yet another negotiation, this time to rewrite the rules for Wall Street.
Sen. CORKER: I think what I learned during the auto is be prepared, you know, do your homework. That's what I've tried to do on financial reform, and at the moment, anyway - and it may have unraveled while we're doing this interview -that's paying off.
CORNISH: Part of Corker's penchant for cooperation may come from his early experiences in the Senate. When he was elected in 2006, he was the lone Republican in the freshman class.
Sen. CORKER: I came in with eight or nine Democrats who have become very good friends. We just got together at Christmas at Claire McCaskill's home here in Washington. But it was fine. You know, my class meeting was with Mitch McConnell - it took about 20 minutes in his office, okay, and that was it.
CORNISH: Corker was fresh off a tight Senate race in Tennessee, against Memphis Congressman Harold Ford. It was a campaign capped by controversy over a Republican National Committee ad featuring a blonde woman beckoning to the African-American candidate.
(Soundbite of ad)
Unidentified Woman: Harold, call me.
CORNISH: The NAACP and other activists cried foul, saying it played on racial prejudice.
Sen. CORKER: It's one of those things that was beyond our control, it hurt us, and certainly, when we got up here, I mean I'm sure there were some of my senators on the other side of the aisle, that, until they got to know me, you know, were saying, huh.
CORNISH: Corker has come a long way since then. His voting record shows him to be loyal. He sticks with the Republicans nearly 88 percent of the time on party line votes. But he has gained a reputation as someone willing, at least, to try to hash things out. For instance, Corker has been working for months with Virginia Democrat Mark Warner on what to do about financial firms considered too big to fail.
Senator MARK WARNER (Democrat, Virginia): I can't say enough about the kind of approach that Bob Corker's brought, which has been thoughtful but thinking we got to get it done. And both of us have tried to say, none of this is religion to either one of us.
CORNISH: And when financial regulatory talks with more senior panel Republicans reached an impasse, Banking Chairman Chris Dodd started working with Corker instead. The process hasn't been easy. Lawmakers are rethinking the powers of the Federal Reserve, among other things. The sticking point remains a plan for an independent agency to protect consumers. Republicans, including Corker, have called it a non-starter.
Corker says he isn't discouraged by the divide.
Sen. CORKER: In business, you try to solve problems. I mean, you know, that's just the mentality that I brought with me. Not every problem is solvable, okay. When you realize that the only thing that really is separating people is politics, it's not substance, I think you ought to take advantage of it.
CORNISH: Corker says if lawmakers come up with a good bill, he'll cross party lines to vote for it, but he'd rather not have to go it alone.
Audie Cornish, NPR News, Washington.
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