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Cornyn: 'We Learned the Hard Way'

"We have the responsibility to govern," Cornyn said. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

At the start of the last Congress, John Cornyn wrote an editorial titled "Partial Government Shutdown May Be Needed to Restore Fiscal Sanity." He's singing a different tune today.  

"I've evolved," the Texas Republican and newly minted Senate majority whip said in an interview last week with CQ Roll Call.  

For starters, the memory of the 2013 shutdown over Obamacare instigated by his fellow Texas senator, Ted Cruz, remains fresh. "Part of wisdom is to learn from your experiences, and I think we learned the hard way that shutdowns are not well received by the American people," Cornyn said. "And honestly we're in a different position now because we're in the majority so we have the responsibility to govern."  

To that end, Cornyn, like Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, is focused on showing the Republicans can bank some accomplishments early.  

“I think it’s important that we demonstrate that we can be productive before we have the inevitable fight over repealing Obamacare,” Cornyn said. He said his colleagues should also heed the advice of recently retired Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.: Don't surprise the leadership with disagreements.  

"We all understand we've got different perspectives and different opinions. But, if people know about it ahead of time, then they can adjust — at least prepare themselves," he said. "People are entitled ... they got independently elected by the voters, and they have every right to their point of view and their vote up here."  

Cornyn's already looking ahead to the burden of raising the debt ceiling — always a politically toxic vote, but one that typically rests with the majority party.  

Cornyn and Republican leaders intend to see that it gets done with a minimum of drama, but maybe with a bit more robust debate.  

He has asked Finance Committee staff about the history of debt limit increases coming through the panel, and the record is mixed.  

"I just wonder if maybe that isn't the better way to do this," Cornyn said of taking the debt limit bill through committee. "If there's anything I think we would benefit from and I think the public would benefit from, it's more transparency. Because when you don't have that kind of transparency … it really just encourages cynicism and suspicion about what's happening up here."  

Cornyn said he has a good relationship with Cruz and their disagreements have more to do with tactics than substance. Cruz echoed the sentiment.  

"John and I have a very good working relationship," Cruz said. "We both represent 26 million Texans and we have been and will continue to work closely together."  

The tactical differences, however, will likely be on full display leading up to the Feb. 27 deadline for passing a bill funding the Department of Homeland Security.  

Republicans, who hold 54 seats in the Senate, are caught between the need for 60 votes to overcome a filibuster and pass a DHS funding bill and their push to keep their promise to try to block the president's executive action giving deportation relief and work permits to about 5 million people here illegally.  

And even if they send defunding language to the president, the White House has said Obama would veto such a bill. "I think there's some risk, even to him, of basically defunding the Department of Homeland Security ..." Cornyn said. "It includes the Secret Service, Coast Guard, not to mention border patrol and others. I think there's more risk to that to him personally than he perhaps appreciates."  

But Cornyn said it's not clear yet what might pass the Senate.  

"Even if just an appropriation bill comes over here from the House, there's no telling what might be offered on that appropriation bill, including the border security bill, including an E-Verify provision, including ... who knows what," Cornyn said. "Sixty votes is the magic number."  

Cornyn was touting a border-security measure crafted by a fellow Texan, House Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul, which he hopes the House will consider.  

The potential for a freewheeling debate on immigration underscores the challenge Senate GOP leaders will have fulfilling their promise to have a more open amendment process, something they spent a lot of time criticizing the Democratic-run Senate for avoiding.  

Cornyn said Republicans would use a variety of methods to handle unwanted amendments.  

"You could agree on a side-by-side that will allow them their political vote and give us our vote and both of them, given a 60 vote threshold, will likely fail, and then move on," Cornyn said.  

"We need to provide our members ... a vote on something that they want to go to their constituents and brag about rather than just purely playing defense," he added.  

There also will be votes to table unwanted amendments.  

But, he indicated that sometimes, unwanted amendments might be accepted just to get a bill to conference.  

"I still remember the days back when [the late Alaska Republican] Ted Stevens was the bill manager on a piece of legislation ... people would come out of the woodwork with different amendments and he'd say, 'Well, senator, we'll take that amendment,'" Cornyn said. "You knew what was going to happen next, and sure enough, it was nowhere to be seen after it came out of conference committee."  

Outside of his leadership duties, Cornyn said he was looking forward to being in the majority at the Finance and Judiciary committees, with an expectation that he will lead the Constitution Subcommittee.  

That will be the venue for another debate over a balanced budget constitutional amendment. He said he would soon join new Finance Chairman Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, in introducing that amendment.  

Not surprisingly, Cornyn also said the subcommittee and the broader Judiciary Committee under Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, would be a home for lots of investigations into the Obama administration.  

Overall, the Senate could "perhaps double the investigations and oversight output," he said.  

"An important part of being the majority is getting the ability to do the oversight — something we haven’t had the chance to do — the investigations," Cornyn said. "I don’t think the administration has been held accountable on enough occasions on enough topics."  

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