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Cornyn Poised to Play the Skeptic on Energy

If history is any indication, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) will become a thorn in the side of Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) once committee debate begins on energy reform. In fact, Cornyn could very well resemble a porcupine if things go as expected and Baucus seeks to raise taxes on the oil industry to help pay for new initiatives.

“I certainly will provide as much pushback as I possibly can because I think it’s absolutely the wrong thing to do to raise taxes during a time of recession,” Cornyn said. “So I expect we’ll have a spirited debate.”

The tall Texan is a recent addition to Finance, joining in January when he nabbed one of the two Republican seats that opened when Sens. John Sununu (N.H.) and Gordon Smith (Ore.) lost their re-election bids in November. Sen. Mike Enzi (Wyo.) took the other seat.

Upon securing the post, Cornyn vowed to become an effective vehicle “to better serve and advance the priorities of all Texans.” That promise will likely be taken to task when Baucus shifts his focus to energy reform after attempting to retool the health care industry. Discussions on ways to cut carbon emissions could begin this fall and so far the chairman is mum on how he intends to pay for such proposals.

However, embedded in the White House budget outline presented to Congress in February are suggestions to raise roughly $30 billion over 10 years by closing oil production loopholes and imposing new taxes on producers in the Gulf of Mexico, moves that critics believe will exacerbate the economic woes of the Lone Star State. At a recent Finance hearing, Cornyn grilled Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner on this very topic.

“I said given the fact the energy sector creates a lot of jobs in this economy — especially in my state — how is raising taxes on these domestic producers going to increase their ability to keep or grow jobs?” Cornyn recalled. “And he said, ‘It’s all a part of the president’s vision for climate change.’ I think they recognize that it will have a negative impact on this area but they are simply committed to an ideological vision.”

President Barack Obama’s budget seeks to raise $656 billion from carbon reduction initiatives that provides $120 billion for renewable energy programs. Cornyn argues the effort equates to a “light switch tax” of up to $3,128 each year for families.

The conservative group Americans for Tax Reform claims Obama’s energy tax proposals, which will likely serve as a base for Finance Committee discussions, threatens a sector that creates 1.2 million jobs and generates $70 billion in taxable income each year.

Debate on energy will not be the first time that Cornyn nettles the Democratic agenda. In January, he punctured plans for then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) to become secretary of State the very day Obama was sworn in. The Texan expressed concern about her financial ties to the Clinton Foundation and stalled her confirmation vote for roughly 24 hours.

He also carved up plans for quick passage in January of a massive public lands bill advocated by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and killed efforts to seat Democrat Al Franken as the junior Senator from Minnesota, warning that such action would set a negative tone for the new Congress.

Less successful were Cornyn’s efforts to block the nomination of Eric Holder to become Obama’s attorney general. At his confirmation hearing, Cornyn, a former Texas attorney general and state Supreme Court judge, repeatedly questioned Holder’s recommendation to former President Bill Clinton to commute the sentences of members of the Puerto Rican independence group FALN who were in prison for setting off bombs in New York and Chicago.

Given Cornyn’s background and the fact that he is routinely in the running for the designation as most conservative Senator, it is no wonder that he looks to deflate the Democratic agenda at every turn or that he was named chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee for the 2010 election cycle. But recently, Cornyn had to assuage conservative concerns that as NRSC chief his recruiting strategy was drifting too far afield.

“There are some people in the Republican base that are a little disgruntled at some of our moderates and I made the point that we have to recruit candidates that fit their states if we’re going to be competitive — and that means blue states and purple states,” Cornyn said. “And I said I’d rather have a Republican that will vote with me 80 percent of the time than a Democrat who will vote with me zero percent of the time. I got some very nice reaction to that.”

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