Cornyn Uses Judiciary Panel as Political Platform

Posted December 11, 2009 at 6:10pm

The Judiciary Committee may not be involved with high-profile issues such as health care reform or job creation, but the panel provides a platform for National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) to discuss red-meat issues that play to his party’s political base.

So while Cornyn hits the road preaching an economic message to woo moderates in states such as Illinois and New Hampshire, he offers up friendly rhetoric to conservatives by focusing on immigration and judicial nominations in the Judiciary panel.

“The Judiciary Committee is a committee that considers some of the most emotional and intense issues in the Senate,— Cornyn said. “Some are frankly boring, like patent reform, but others like immigration light up the sky.—

The Judiciary panel is the most partisan committee in the Senate and includes four members of the Senate leadership: Cornyn, Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.). Schumer served as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee for the 2006 and 2008 cycles.

Republicans argued that Schumer similarly used his Judiciary perch to speak to the party faithful, repeatedly looking to exploit issues before the committee to serve as fodder for the campaigns that he was overseeing.

For instance, Schumer was deeply involved in the Senate’s failed 2006 immigration reform debate. After conservatives scuttled a deal that had backing from moderates, the Bush administration and Senate Democrats, Schumer took to the Judiciary Committee to lob complaints about anti-immigration attitudes that were echoed by Democratic candidates on the trail.

But perhaps the most infamous overlap of Schumer’s duties as a Judiciary member and chief architect of Democrats’ campaign strategy came during the scandal involving the questionable firings of nine U.S. attorneys.

Judiciary Democrats launched an investigation into the Justice Department over the matter. With Schumer leading the effort, Democrats uncovered evidence that they said showed political motivations behind the firings, including that of New Mexico U.S. Attorney David Iglesias. Iglesias, during a hearing before the committee, accused ex-Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), who was up for re-election at the time, of pressuring him to bring indictments against Democrats in the state. Those charges ultimately led to a Senate Ethics Committee investigation.

Domenici’s seat was one of the DSCC’s top targets in the 2008 elections, and the next day, the organization sent out a fundraising pitch highlighting the ethics investigation and Iglesias’ testimony.

For his part, Cornyn has focused much of his attention on judicial nominees, dismissing President Barack Obama’s more liberal picks and repeatedly criticizing Democrats for filibustering several of then-President George W. Bush’s nominees.

“It’s no secret that I remain deeply frustrated by the treatment of nominees like Miguel Estrada,— Cornyn said of the one-time district court nominee who was never confirmed by the Senate.

Cornyn continued to press the issue during the July confirmation of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. He ultimately voted against the high court selection

“Many Senators shared my view that, had he been confirmed to the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, that he could have been the first Hispanic nominated to the United States Supreme Court,— Cornyn said, lamenting, “Instead that honor goes to the nominee we have before us, Judge Sonia Sotomayor.—

Cornyn is the ranking member of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees and Border Security, coincidentally chaired by Schumer. Cornyn frequently weaves in immigration-related questions during committee hearings and pressed Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano on the topic last week.

Just as Schumer blasted the Republican majority and the Bush White House as he was looking to win control of the Senate in 2006, one GOP aide said Cornyn can do the same to flip a few seats this cycle.

“If Cornyn can point to that committee and say, ‘Here’s an example of what an overwhelming one-party rule gets you,’ then he can make a pretty strong case to vote for Republicans,— the aide said.