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The Texan Who Really Matters at the Capitol This Year

This year, the most consequential Texan in the Senate is definitely not Ted Cruz.  

That designation is awarded, without any equivocation, to the state’s senior senator, John Cornyn.  

Cruz remains in the hunt for the presidency, which has prompted him to become an almost totally absentee senator in 2016. (He’s made just two roll calls and missed the other 30 on the floor so far this year). And if his White House bid comes up short, there won’t be any eagerness among his already-standoffish GOP colleagues to accept Cruz back into the club he’s been denigrating his entire political career.  

Cornyn, in sharp contrast, is not only the No. 2 Republican senator by virtue of his title as majority whip. He’s also a senior member of the Judiciary Committee, which makes him the person in the leadership most intimately enmeshed in the party’s boldest crusade at the Capitol this election season: preventing any nominee for the Supreme Court from taking even one step toward confirmation. Cornyn drew heightened attention to that role this week with his warning that President Barack Obama’s choice for the court should expect to be treated like “a piñata” in the GOP Senate.  

Democrats quickly made him a new focus of their lack-of-fairness arguments about the coming court standoff, which had been aimed almost entirely at Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley  

Cornyn should be ashamed for “threatening to destroy the reputation of a Supreme Court nominee they haven’t even met yet,” Minority Leader Harry Reid declared. White House spokesman Josh Earnest chided the Texan for adopting the rhetorical style of Donald Trump and for escalating his party’s strategy from simply ignoring to actively bashing whatever person the president puts forward.  

It was a rare occasion when Cornyn, not Cruz, was the Texas senator getting called out for pushing the bounds of caustic commentary.  

The criticism is of questionable justification. The piñata metaphor is naturally invoked by anyone who came of age in San Antonio, which Cornyn did. And he’s used it several times before, including in his criticisms a decade ago of how the Senate Democratic majority of that time browbeat Samuel A. Alito Jr. on his path toward Supreme Court confirmation.  

Fairly or not, though, Cornyn’s uncharacteristically strong language and prominent public profile as a partisan combatant could theoretically become career-limiting.  

The history of the judicial wars in the past several decades has been marked by role reversals with every shift in the Senate power dynamic. Senators from the party occupying the White House insist the president’s picks for judgeships should be afforded up-or-down votes without delay, personal animus or political litmus test. When their team doesn’t control the presidency, those same senators say they’re justified in preventing their version of ideological excess on the courts by whatever means necessary.  

A Republican president, especially if confronted by a Democratic Senate, might seek to steer around those ingrained patterns by nominating a sitting senator to the Supreme Court for the first time since Ohio Republican Harold Burton got the call in 1945. Although Cornyn will turn 65 early in the next administration, which would make him one of the oldest people to ever join the court, he has an otherwise tailor-made background including six years as a justice of the Texas Supreme Court and a term as state attorney general before his election to the Senate in 2002. (And he was considered by President George W. Bush for both opening on the high court in 2005).  

It’s virtually guaranteed, though, that in the future Cornyn would be automatically blockaded by his Democratic Senate colleagues as straight-up retribution for working so hard to keep the late Justice Antonin Scalia’s seat open until the next president takes office.  

That scenario would become even more unlikely with the election of Cruz, who helped cement his own standing as persona non grata in the GOP cloakroom when he refused to endorse Cornyn’s 2014 re-election bid in the face of a nettlesome Texas tea party primary challenge.  

More likely, Cornyn will continue to pursue his role as the most powerful elected official in the second-most-populous state, remaining a paragon of the GOP establishment in Washington no matter what the future holds for his junior Senate partner and long after memories fade of the other Texan prominent in this decade’s presidential politics, former Gov. Rick Perry.  

Retaining his Senate sway hasn’t been easy for Cornyn. His stock surged after the GOP picked up seven seats in 2010 when he was chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. But when he kept that chairmanship in 2012 and the party lost seats , his standing plummeted so much that his two-year quest to win promotion to party whip nearly foundered.  

Since getting the job, he’s maintained reliably good reviews as McConnell’s top lieutenant and vote-wrangler, although his occasional feints away from doctrinaire conservatism and toward compromise with Democrats continue to unsettle and annoy the right flank of his caucus. He and McConnell are next scheduled to face voters back home in 2020.  

Cornyn also has a better reputation with the Capitol press corps than most GOP leaders, partly by remaining among the more chatty senators in the corridors and partly because he’s been self-deprecating about his persona as the lanky, boot-clad, white-haired Texas pol.  

(Perhaps excessively full disclosure: More than 30 years ago, as a lawyer in private practice, Cornyn helped extract me from a frivolous libel suit brought by a San Antonio city councilman).  

In short, Cornyn remains as close as it gets to a Cruz antithesis. But his reputation and power-player status will surely to be challenged, if not altered or undone, as he hurtles himself into the Supreme Court bitterness ahead.  

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