As Cornyn exits Senate leadership, Texas is shut out of its own border talks

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, talks with reporters before going into his whip office on Capitol Hill, Friday, Dec. 21, 2018.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, talks with reporters before going into his whip office on Capitol Hill, Friday, Dec. 21, 2018. AP

Sen. John Cornyn, once the chief architect of Senate Republicans’ plan to give President Donald Trump his border wall, is no longer in the room for White House negotiations on a matter of huge importance to his state.

Trump met with the top two leaders from each chamber Wednesday — a group that no longer includes Cornyn, who represents roughly 1,200 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Another meeting is planned for Friday, as the government remains partially shut down over disagreements between Republicans and Democrats over how much if any money Trump should receive for his wall. Cornyn’s office said he is not expected to attend.

The Texas Republican was replaced Thursday as his party’s second-ranking Senate leader by Sen. John Thune, R-South Dakota.

“I don’t think anything happened in that room,” Cornyn joked in an interview with the Star-Telegram Thursday when asked about his absence from the White House negotiations.

“There [are] more important things happening over here where we’re trying to find some common ground and conversations are occurring,” said Cornyn, who lost his leadership position due to term limits. “I’m still around. I must be having three or four meetings a day on [the border wall]” with lawmakers from both parties.

This year Cornyn moves into a new role as a top adviser to Senate leadership as he prepares to run for re-election in Texas in 2020.

After Trump’s 2016 election, the Texan worked closely with the Department of Homeland Security on a border security plan with barriers in some places and technology in others, a proposal designed to give the president his campaign promise without massively disrupting border communities.

It received 39 Senate votes, and was among four plans the Republican-controlled Senate voted down last year.

Now Cornyn, who still hopes to someday become his party’s leader in the Senate, has drastically lowered his expectations for what Republicans can achieve on the issue in a Congress now divided between the two parties.

Democrats took control of the House Thursday, meaning any eventual solution will now require their support.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, is joined by his family on Capitol Hill to swear in for a second six year U.S. Senate term with Vice President Mike Pence, Jan. 3, 2019.

Speaking on the Senate floor Thursday, Cornyn urged the parties to come together on a proposal to increase border security, even if it no longer includes the physical barriers Trump promised to build and Cornyn once sought to help him deliver.

“My constituents… they’re not interested in show votes. They want real border security, something our Democratic colleagues used to support and have voted for time and time again,” Cornyn said on the Senate floor.

“If [Democrats] say they don’t like the physical infrastructure part but they like the technology, the scanning devices improving the ports of entry where the high-price drugs come through, why don’t they put a bill on the floor that does some of those things?” Cornyn asked reporters outside the leadership office in the U.S. Capitol that he will soon turn over to Thune.

Trump, on the other hand, made a special trip to the White House briefing room Thursday to make his case for the wall.

Flanked by border patrol agents and members of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Trump said that “without a very strong form of barrier... you can’t have border security it won’t work.”

Last month as the president was on television threatening a shutdown, Cornyn, who chairs the Senate’s panel on border security and immigration, was huddling with Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, on solutions involving Democrats.

“What I’ve just tried to do is point out that we’ve always been able to come together and solve our problems even when we have different points of view when we actually want to get to a solution,” Cornyn told the Star-Telegram Thursday, stressing his good relationship with Democrats, including Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, who represents part of the Texas-Mexico border.

Andrea Drusch is the Washington Correspondent for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. She is a Corinth, Texas, native and graduate of the Bob Schieffer School of Journalism at Texas Christian University. She returns home frequently to visit family, get her fix of Fuzzy’s Tacos and cheer on the Horned Frogs.

Franco Ordoñez is a White House correspondent for the McClatchy Washington Bureau with a focus on immigration and foreign affairs. He previously covered Latin American affairs for the Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald. He moved to Washington in 2011 after six years at the Charlotte Observer covering immigration and working on investigative projects for The Charlotte Observer.