WASHINGTON — The Senate’s minority whip is confident about Republicans being the majority in the 114th Congress — if conservatives can set aside differences and work to combat the massive influx of donor cash that has Democratic campaigns ahead in the money race.
Only in the majority, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) stresses, can conservatives make headway on tamping down overregulation, repealing and replacing Obamacare, securing the “chaotic” border, getting Keystone XL moving, and bringing civilized debate back to the upper chamber.
And only by realizing the gravity of the battle for November, he argues, can Republicans relegate Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to minority leader in January.
“Everybody should recognize that we’re always stronger when we’re together than when we’re divided,” Cornyn told PJM, noting that the intra-party clashes in the primary cycle over conservative credentials were “healthy.” The two-term senator easily beat back a challenge from Tea Party Rep. Steve Stockman (R-Texas) in March, and is polling in strong double-digits against Democratic opponent David Alameel in his quest for a third term.
“We’ve been through a six-year experiment in big government,” Cornyn said. “We can’t let divisions between conservatives cause us to forfeit elections to big government.”
In the midterms “everything is at stake,” he added, and “arguments within the family” should be laid to rest to get the party past the finish line. “The appropriate time for it has passed, at least until after the general election,” the senator said, noting that once the GOP gets the majority the party can then have “robust discussion about what our priorities should be.”
Cornyn said Reid’s priorities in the two-week period between the summer recess and the current campaign recess were “merely for show.”
Reid tried yet failed to advance a bill to nullify the Supreme Court’s Citizens United campaign finance ruling — a bill he knew wouldn’t pass. Cornyn called this “merely an attempt to try to galvanize his base of voters.”
“He also needed to change the subject as the president’s popularity ratings continue in a southward direction,” the GOP whip added. Faced with a slate of more than 380 bills that have passed the House, many with bipartisan support, Reid “refuses to bring them up because he doesn’t want to expose his vulnerable Democrats.”
How the lame-duck session will be depends on how the election goes, Cornyn said. If Democrats hang on, a scenario he would “hate to even think about,” he expects Reid to jam through as much legislation as possible before the end of the year. If the GOP retakes the majority, “I think trying to jam forward as many nominees as he could would probably be high on their agenda.”
Last November, Reid triggered the nuclear option to push nominees through on a simple majority cloture vote.
Cornyn called the timing of Attorney General Eric Holder’s resignation, announced last week, “very strange.” Holder has agreed to stay at the helm of the Justice Department until President Obama names a replacement and that person is confirmed.
“Under the normal course of things there wouldn’t be enough time to get a new attorney general confirmed,” he said, noting that a nominee would have to undergo extensive background checks and congressional hearings before Senate floor debate. “Based on the track record, I wouldn’t put anything past Sen. Reid.”
Lots of other things can influence the timing of the attorney general nomination, he added, including the mounting bipartisan call for a new authorization for military force for strikes in Syria and Iraq.
Cornyn is one of those proponents of a new AUMF, along with Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who argued in a New York Times op-ed that “the involvement of Congress is not a dry constitutional principle.”
“This is an abdication of Congress’ role in the Constitution to engage on the subject of war,” Cornyn said, adding that an “interesting coalition” including many Democrats should be enough bipartisan pressure for a new authorization.
“The irony is the president said the war in Iraq is over,” then relies on that AUMF along with the 9/11 one to justify current strikes.
“I don’t want to see America at war without the American people’s buy-in,” the senator continued.
“Right now, the president seems to think that these airstrikes are enough — we all know they’re not if the goal is victory.”
War in Syria and Iraq isn’t the only issue on the Senate’s plate, and Cornyn says the media “seem to be buying” Reid’s narrative that Republicans are being obstructionists while he blocks amendments from members of both parties — a process known as “filling the tree” and leaving no more room for amendments to be offered.
“I don’t think Sen. Reid is going to change his strategy; he’ll continue down that same path,” Cornyn predicted of a 114th Congress with the Nevada senator still in charge, adding that he hopes Reid’s tactics become “a focal point for disdain” among voters looking to return to a functioning Congress.
As far as strategy on key GOP issues, Cornyn sees a “piece by piece” effort to strip away Obamacare, focusing on the repeal aspects that enjoy bipartisan support such as the individual mandate.
Even in a GOP-majority Senate, he knows what awaits repeal-and-replace votes. “In all likelihood, the president is going to use his veto pen on some of these,” he said, stressing that the “single most important thing we can do early on is to pass a budget” and tweak what they can on the spending side during budget reconciliation.
Cornyn noted “the numbers seem to have flipped” against Obama and his party on immigration in the court of public opinion.
The immediate need is to “restore some order out of this chaos” and pass a border security strategy “that doesn’t depend on the president’s discretion,” such as the Helping Unaccompanied Minors and Alleviating National Emergency (HUMANE) Act proposed with Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), he said, along with addressing visa overstays, which comprise about 40 percent of illegal immigration.
If the GOP wins the majority, the Keystone XL pipeline “would be one of the first things we vote on,” Cornyn promised.
He noted that Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), in her own tight re-election fight, has highlighted her energy credentials yet has been “unsuccessful in getting her majority leader to even allow a vote.”
“It’s a no-brainer, but when you’re wearing ideological blinders … we’re not going to see any movement on Keystone until there’s a GOP majority.”
And Cornyn is feeling “pretty good” about the prospects for that GOP majority come November.
Today’s Senate forecast at FiveThirtyEight — the site of Nate Silver, who correctly predicted all 50 states in the 2012 presidential election — has the Republicans at a 61 percent chance of winning back the upper chamber.
What concerns the former National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman, though, is how the Democrats “seem to be better funded than our side … another irony with all the time Sen. Reid has been railing against the Koch brothers.”
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which has benefited from frequent fundraisers with President Obama, outraised the NRSC $7.7 million to $6.1 million in August, and $7.1 million to the NRSC’s $5.5 million in July. Both parties have been hitting their mailing lists hard for donations as September draws to an end.
“Given a fair fight, I feel optimistic we can regain the Senate; it’s just question of how much,” Cornyn said, stressing voters have a “historic opportunity” to turn the tide.
“If we don’t give it everything we’ve got, we’ve only got ourselves to blame.”