Congress

As a top Senate leader, Texas’ John Cornyn has ‘to deliver’

Texas Sen. John Cornyn speaks during the Texas Republican Convention at the Fort Worth Convention Center in Fort Worth, Texas, on June 6, 2014.
Texas Sen. John Cornyn speaks during the Texas Republican Convention at the Fort Worth Convention Center in Fort Worth, Texas, on June 6, 2014. MCT

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, just started his third six-year term in office and it is shaping up as the best yet for the 62-year-old lawmaker, certainly better than what he says are the last eight “miserable” years in the minority.

As the Senate majority whip and the only Texan in the congressional leadership, Cornyn is now the very visible second in command to Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. The Texan is the point man in securing votes while the Senate Republicans push an activist agenda, starting with an upcoming vote on the Keystone XL pipeline.

“We have new management in the U.S. Senate,” he told Texas reporters Wednesday. “I’m really excited about the prospects of changing the way the Senate operates.”

And while the tall, soft-spoken former Texas Supreme Court judge and state attorney general rarely shows a lot of emotion, he said with a measure of enthusiasm, “It’s going to be a great adventure.”

Cornyn spent the last two years as Senate minority whip, a job with a nice office off the floor but little personal satisfaction. He complained often in Senate speeches about how obstructionist then-Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., was being by not allowing GOP amendments or not bringing bills to the floor.

Now, Cornyn vows, things will be different, with bipartisanship, such as a vote on the Keystone XL pipeline, a project that would take western Canadian oil through the U.S. to Texas refineries.

However, he and other pipeline supporters found the promise of Republicans and Democrats working together undermined by a White House announcement that President Barack Obama would veto the bill. At a GOP leadership stakeout, Cornyn complained that “he’s issuing premature veto threats.”

The president prefers instead to wait for a Nebraska court to rule on the pipeline’s projected route and a final State Department ruling on the project – because it crosses an international border – before deciding whether to approve Keystone.

Cornyn, who led the Senate Republican campaign committee for two cycles, said, “We’re not going to let him dictate what we do.”

“It’s a sea change in Congress being in the majority,” said Mark Jones, the chairman of the political science department at Rice University. “The whip is really the person working behind the scenes, getting votes, making sure legislation is crafted in the right way.”

Cornyn has to walk a fine line in his new role, sometimes cajoling, sometimes warning and sometimes even pleading with senators to support legislation.

“Cornyn has a judicial temperament, as befits a former judge,” said Larry Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “His best tool is sweet reason, and he employs it with rational demeanor. Cornyn isn’t the sort to issue threats or throw temper tantrums. That actually fits his leadership responsibilities. Most senators don’t respond well to threats or emotionalism. Gentle persuasion and self-interest argument works best.”

That style may help with the state’s other senator, fellow Republican Ted Cruz, who’s given the GOP leadership heartburn since his election two years ago. Last month Cruz demanded a vote on Obama’s immigration executive action after Democrats and Republicans had agreed to take the weekend off. It enabled Reid to call a rare Saturday session and get a number of stalled judicial nominations and presidential appointees through the Senate.

In 2013, Cruz helped force a partial federal-government shutdown in a showdown over funding.

Asked how he’d go about his new job, Cornyn said he’d be talking to senators on both sides of the aisle and revealed, “I was visiting with Sen. Cruz this morning.”

Cornyn said his state’s senators had to coordinate, and they commiserated over the Senate inactivity under Reid. “It’s been a pretty miserable experience for us in the minority,” said the state’s senior senator.

With a voice in what will happen in the Senate, Cornyn said of Cruz, “We’re going to be working closely together.”

As second in command, Cornyn, who’ll continue to work out of the same office just off the Senate floor, has a very enhanced role.

“He’ll be at the table where all the strategies are developed,” said Sean Theriault, an associate professor in the government department at the University of Texas at Austin. “The Republicans in the Senate now have the burden of governing. Previously, the strategy sessions consisted of little more than how to stop Obama and Reid. Now they have to deliver. That’s a far different proposition.”

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