Cornyn's fight to cut debt carries political price

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, right, talks with reporters as Sen. Robert Casey, Jr., D-Pa., rear, checks his phone following a series of votes on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2009, in Washington. (AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari)

December 27, 2009 7:27:37 AM PST
When Texas Sen. John Cornyn recently voted against legislation funding NASA, with its thousands of jobs at Houstons Johnsons Space Center, it caused a bit of a stir back home. After all, the Republican senator always prided himself on being a champion of home-state interests.

Even Cornyn readily admits that his vote is an about-face. But theres a clear explanation for the change: Cornyn says hes trying to strike a balance between his dual roles as a senator seeking federal spending in Texas and as an emerging GOP congressional leader fighting to cut government expenditures.

Cornyn, the chairman of the Senate Republicans 2010 campaign committee, says his recent vote does not signal opposition to spending federal money in Texas -- just his growing disillusionment with the deepening federal deficit.

"I am a fiscal conservative, so I approach all of this from that perspective," Cornyn told the Houston Chronicle in an interview. "Obviously at the same time where its appropriate to help entities like NASA in the state of Texas, Im going to try to make sure that they are fairly and adequately funded."

Cornyn, who has helped orchestrate Republicans anti-spending chorus as chairman of the Senate GOPs campaign arm, says hes merely echoing "the anger and aversion that most of my constituents have about out-of-control spending up here" in Washington.

Still, Cornyns recent pattern of votes reflects the unusual tradeoffs he must make as he juggles his duties as a senator from Texas with his responsibilities as leader of the GOP committee trying to wrest control of the Senate from Democrats in next years midterm elections.

The senator is "caught in a terrible pickle," says Rice University political scientist Robert Stein, co-author of Perpetuating the Pork Barrel. "Legislators support back home usually lies with their ability to take care of constituents. But Republicans anti-spending campaign puts that at risk."

Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas, says Texans are "going to start noticing" Cornyn juggling the sometimes competing roles of home-state senator and political operative orchestrating GOP efforts to undo the Democrats 60-seat "super majority."

"These two jobs create pressures for him," Buchanan says. In a political turnabout that may indicate what lies ahead, Cornyn abandoned his long-standing support of federal spending for NASA and for the Johnson Space Center.

In the pre-Christmas legislative rush, he joined Senate Republicans, with fellow Texan and NASA champion Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison among them, in opposing a government-wide, $448 billion spending package that included $18.7 billion for the space agency.

"Clearly because you end up voting against a bill because it has excessive spending doesnt mean you dont support a lot of the underlying components of it," Cornyn explained. "But there needs to be a little restraint particularly during the time of high deficits and runaway debt."

Yet Cornyns toughest balancing act may come next year, when the White House and Congress launch expected efforts to win compromise on comprehensive immigration reform that includes provisions to enable undocumented immigrants to obtain U.S. citizenship.

Cornyn was active in failed reform efforts in 2005 and 2007. He says he will press for inclusion of the pathway to citizenship requiring illegal immigrants to return to their home countries to obtain legal entry into the United States.


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