Into the Weeds: Taming the GOP Congress
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Hopes that Congress can actually get something done in the next two years ride on this man.
Texas Sen. John Cornyn is a tall man, something that’s not readily apparent when you see him slinging sound bites on TV. Trying to keep pace with him as he strides through the marbled halls of Congress, I find myself shouting up in the general direction of his ear. Finally, he stops and faces me, tilting down to hear my questions. The big one: How on earth will he keep the Republican caucus together next year?
“We’re going to be a well-oiled machine,” Cornyn says. And then he laughs.
One of Congress’ savviest operators, the 62-year-old Houston native undoubtedly knows that’s a stretch. As incoming majority whip, Cornyn — more than others — is in for a roller-coaster ride when Republicans take control of the Senate next year. It’s not just keeping head counts for votes, or helping incoming Majority Leader Mitch McConnell show that the party can actually govern after eight years in the minority wilderness. It’s that the chamber is about to get turned into a platform for the presumptive presidential candidacies of three Republican senators: Rand Paul, Marco Rubio and the junior senator from Texas, Ted Cruz. Firebrands all, if they’re given a chance to say their piece they could well hijack the chamber. Relationships with leadership, meanwhile, are complicated; Cruz couldn’t even bring himself to endorse Cornyn for re-election this year.
The rift among Republicans is between those looking to work within the system and those who want to blow it up.
“Now that we’re driving the car … holding this unruly band together is going to be tough,” says South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, who adds that he thinks Cornyn is the “best guy in the conference to bring us together.” Even without the presidential aspirants, deep divisions remain within the GOP. And, as retired Arizona senator and former Republican whip Jon Kyl observes, “It’s tougher to get stuff passed than it is to stop it.” That’s because in today’s Senate, you now need to get 60 votes to avoid a filibuster on most legislation. Republicans will have 54 senators next year.
To be sure, Cornyn is deft and pragmatic. Despite Cruz’s repeated refusal to endorse Cornyn, Cruz’s spokesperson insists the Texan senators “have a great working relationship.” For his part, Cornyn says he talks “all the time” to the GOP insurgents — and 2016 aspirants. “We agree on most things,” he says. “The disagreements around here tend to be more about tactics than anything else.”
… toeing the leadership line while tipping his cap to the tea party gadflies.
The thing is, in Congress these days, tactics and policy have become one and the same. The rift among Republicans has less to do with ideology than it does with process, dividing those looking to work within the system and those who want to blow it up. Colleagues and political analysts say that Cornyn, who will be entering his third term in the Senate, is as equipped as anyone to bridge the gap. That’s evident even in our brief exchange. He’s affable without saying too much, toeing the leadership line while tipping his cap to the tea party gadflies. “Light on his political feet” is the way Southern Methodist University political scientist Cal Jillson describes him.
Texas has been a good training ground. A lawyer by trade, Cornyn cut his political teeth in the ’80s and ’90s in the state’s court system, where judges must run for office like other public officials. He certainly had the right look — silver-haired with a high forehead and square jaw, Cornyn has a “central casting quality,” Jillson says. That and his performance on the Texas Supreme Court attracted the attention of a young Republican strategist named Karl Rove, who recruited Cornyn, as he did so many other Texas Republicans of that era, to run for higher office. In 1998, Cornyn became the first Republican attorney general elected in Texas since Reconstruction. His ties with Rove and Texas Governor-turned-President George W. Bush then helped him make the leap to the Senate in 2002.
Cornyn can also thank those relationships, in part, for his quick rise within the party’s Senate leadership. But as Bush’s star waned, the rookie senator had to carve out his own identity. He’s done that, colleagues and observers say, through a combination of smarts and an ability to balance politics and policymaking.
“I think in Texas there are two people who look kind of similar, one of whom has survived and one who was taken out,” says Jillson. Cornyn is the survivor. Outgoing Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who lost to Cruz in the Senate primary in 2012, is the washout. Both were business-friendly, establishment conservatives. But unlike Dewhurst, Cornyn survived his tea party primary challenge earlier this year, even without Cruz’s help. “He’s a conservative guy; nobody doubts his conservatism,” says Graham. “But he’s a very practical, let’s-move-the-ball-forward kind of guy.”
Senate Republicans’ rebellious band of Young Turks are bound to test Cornyn’s ability to walk that tightrope like never before. Yet he remains sanguine. So “we’re going to see a smoother legislative process next year?” I ask him as he turns to walk into a Senate Republican lunch.
“Oh, absolutely,” he says. “I think people will be pleasantly surprised.”