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Meet The Senator Tasked With Keeping Rebellious Republicans In Line

Incoming Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas smiles Nov. 12 as he talks with reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington.
Jacquelyn Martin
Incoming Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas smiles Nov. 12 as he talks with reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Next year Republican senators, thrust into the majority by dominating the 2014 election, will be faced with a difficult question: How well can the caucus, split in recent years between rabble-rousers and party diehards, wield its newfound power?

"We're going to be a well-oiled machine," says Texas Sen. John Cornyn with a laugh. One of Congress' savviest operators, the 62-year-old Houston native undoubtedly knows that will be a challenge. As incoming majority whip, Cornyn — more than others — is in for a roller-coaster ride when Republicans take control of the Senate next year.

It's not just keeping head counts for votes, or helping incoming Majority Leader Mitch McConnell show that the party can actually govern after eight years in the minority wilderness.

The chamber also is about to get turned into a platform for the presumptive presidential candidacies of three Republican senators: Rand Paul, Marco Rubio and the junior senator from Texas, Ted Cruz.

(Also considering a run at the White House is Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a left-wing independent. Sen. Bob Corker, a more mainstream Republican from Tennessee, may also be thinking about a run.)

The firebrands' relationships with leadership, meanwhile, are complicated; Cruz couldn't even bring himself to endorse Cornyn for re-election this year.

"Now that we're driving the car ... holding this unruly band together is going to be tough," says South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, who adds that he thinks Cornyn is the "best guy in the conference to bring us together."

Even without the presidential aspirants, deep divisions remain within the GOP. And, as retired Arizona senator and former Republican whip Jon Kyl observes, "It's tougher to get stuff passed than it is to stop it."

That's because in today's Senate, you now need to get 60 votes to avoid a filibuster on most legislation. Republicans will have 54 senators next year.

For his part, Cornyn says he talks "all the time" to the GOP insurgents — and 2016 aspirants; Cruz's spokesperson insists the Texan senators "have a great working relationship."

"We agree on most things," Cornyn says. "The disagreements around here tend to be more about tactics than anything else."

But that's the crux of the Republican rift, which has more to do with process than ideology and divides those looking to work within the system from those who want to blow it up. Colleagues and political analysts say Cornyn, who will be entering his third term in the Senate, is as equipped as anyone to bridge that gap.

"Light on his political feet" is the way Southern Methodist University political scientist Cal Jillson describes the Texan lawyer, who cut his political teeth in the '80s and '90s running for judicial posts.

His performance on the Texas Supreme Court attracted the attention of Karl Rove. He recruited Cornyn, who in 1998, Cornyn became the first Republican attorney general elected in Texas since Reconstruction. His ties with Rove and Texas Governor-turned-President George W. Bush then helped him make the leap to the Senate in 2002.

Cornyn also can thank those relationships, in part, for his quick rise within the party's Senate leadership. But as Bush's star waned, the rookie senator had to carve out his own identity. He's done that, colleagues and observers say, through a combination of smarts and an ability to balance politics and policymaking.

"I think in Texas there are two [elected officials] who look kind of similar, one of whom has survived and one who was taken out," says Jillson.

Cornyn is the survivor. Outgoing Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who lost to Cruz in the Senate primary in 2012, is the washout. Both were business-friendly, establishment conservatives. But unlike Dewhurst, Cornyn survived his tea party primary challenge earlier this year, even without Cruz's help.

"He's a conservative guy; nobody doubts his conservatism," says Graham. "But he's a very practical, let's-move-the-ball-forward kind of guy."

And Cornyn is confident "people will be pleasantly surprised," he says, by how much yardage his ambitious, sometimes squabbling caucus is going to pick up in the next two years.

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Emily Cadei