Senate Republicans are in a grumpy mood these days. Then there’s John Cornyn, who’s almost unfailingly optimistic about the GOP’s chances of passing its Obamacare repeal bill despite the increasingly long odds.
“I mean, if you’re going to be in a leadership role, you don’t have the luxury of public handwringing,” Cornyn, the Senate majority whip, said in a recent interview in his Capitol office.
Whether he’s wringing his hands in private is another matter, but the Texas Republican is facing his toughest test yet in his four-and-a-half years as chief vote-counter for the Senate GOP: Rounding up 50 votes to dismantle Obamacare. The news of Sen. John McCain’s eye surgery and subsequent delay of the health care vote has only further complicated that task, giving more time for critics of the GOP bill to pile on.
Though Cornyn keeps a literal whip on his desk, his style isn’t heavy-handed; it’s more gentle pushing and information-dispensing, senators say. Cornyn acknowledges: “If you try to strong arm a senator, they’re just as likely to push back or punch back.”
“If you’re going to whip it, then you gotta know what’s in it,” said Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.). “Members don’t know, in detail, legislation. John Cornyn does. That’s his greatest strength.”
He’s held private one-on-one meetings with a slew of wavering senators to persuade them to back the party’s controversial bill, which would overhaul one-sixth of the U.S. economy and could mean more than 20 million fewer Americans with health insurance. Cornyn said his offerings are not “state specific” deals to convince the likes of Nevada Sen. Dean Heller or Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, although the latest drafts of the bill include some carve-outs for Florida, Alaska and Louisiana.
In the POLITICO interview, Cornyn also essentially ruled out any bipartisan health care fixes with Democrats even if the GOP’s repeal effort fails, saying problems with Obamacare are too big to solve without major structural changes. He knows the GOP health care bill isn’t perfect; he quipped that’s why Republicans call it the “better care” act, not the best.
The Texas Republican has no margin for error. Two GOP senators — conservative Rand Paul of Kentucky and centrist Susan Collins of Maine — have already declared they won’t even vote to start debate on the health care measure. About half a dozen others are teetering on the fence. And Cornyn knows that success, or failure, carries ramifications for the rest of the GOP’s ambitious agenda.
“This is more about than just health care,” Cornyn said. “This is about our ability to demonstrate now that we’ve got the White House and majorities in both houses that we can actually govern. And so I think what we do here is going to be important to laying the foundation to move forward on tax reform and other issues.”
If Cornyn fails in his task, he admits there “will be some damage” to the congressional GOP’s political status.
“Our supporters will be disappointed because this is something we’ve been saying we will do,” he said.
With Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell typically tight-lipped, Cornyn has emerged as a chief salesman for the GOP’s beleaguered health care plan. On Sunday, he was the only senator supporting the bill to go on one of five major political news shows and defend it against Collins and Paul, who both lashed the bill on national television.
Often the public-facing voice of Republican leadership, Cornyn also mixes it up with reporters peppering him with health care questions even when the GOP bill seems to be going nowhere. And he projects confidence even when public whip counts turn dark.
Sometimes his predictions go awry.
On the last Monday in June, the senator declared he was “closing the door” on any chance that the Senate wouldn’t take up the bill that week. Just 24 hours later, McConnell announced that he was delaying the vote. (“Just a crack,” Cornyn gamely tweeted when asked whether the door had swung back open.)
Cornyn also confidently predicted in February that Senate Republicans would confirm Andrew Puzder as Labor secretary. Hours later, the fast food executive withdrew his nomination.
“I don’t believe he ever intentionally blindsides me,” Cornyn said of McConnell. “He does keep things close and you know, occasionally when I’m not informed about a decision he’s going to make for example, inadvertently, he’ll call me up and say, ‘Sorry, I thought you knew.’”
Former Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), Cornyn’s predecessor as whip, said of the upbeat Texan: “He’s got a tough job.”
Cornyn, 65, is a distinct figure in a colorful cast of characters on Capitol Hill. First elected to the Senate in 2002, the GOP senator with snow-white hair and a penchant for wearing cowboy boots to work has soared to the top of the Republican ranks after two terms as chair of the party’s campaign arm.
In a rarity for an elected official, Cornyn runs his own Twitter feed — tweeting out photos from his view during congressional hearings, sparring directly with reporters and falling victim to the occasional autocorrect. (On whether he blocks fellow Twitter users, Cornyn says "I won’t say I never have, but as a general rule, I don’t.") He has an equally freewheeling personal Instagram account.
Cornyn is as partisan as any leading party figure, but has shown he can cut a deal. He was among a group of Democrats and Republicans who struck an agreement on a major criminal justice reform measure that drove a rift within his own party, though it ultimately died in the Senate last year.
Cornyn also crafted a law that would allow victims of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks to sue the government of Saudi Arabia, which he co-wrote with now-Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, his regular workout buddy in the Senate gym. That bill was the sole veto from President Barack Obama that Congress successfully overrode.
“We get along amazingly well for two people with totally different political views,” said Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin, his Democratic counterpart who worked with Cornyn on criminal justice reform. “I deeply regret that he’s not following regular order in the Senate with hearings” on health care, but “it doesn’t detract from my personal friendship with him.”
On occasion, Cornyn has also collided with his fellow Texas Republican colleague, Sen. Ted Cruz, who pointedly declined to endorse Cornyn during his reelection bid in 2014. But Cruz, in a statement, called his senior senator a "talented leader" who has "built vast experience and a distinguished record of service."
At least for a few days this year, it seemed Cornyn’s career in the Senate would end abruptly. He interviewed for the position of FBI director soon after Trump fired James Comey and on the urging of an old colleague, now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
“I said: ‘I won’t reject it out of hand,’” Cornyn recalled telling the president. “Then he said, ‘we’ll just float your name.’ And then the next day I know, I’m on a shortlist. … It sort of snowballed. It was a 40-hour flirtation with the idea.”
Ultimately, Cornyn decided against seeking the job. But he will face some major decisions on his future soon enough. He will have to leave his job as GOP whip job due to term limits after 2018 and lose the office’s trappings: A security detail and a view of the Supreme Court from his ornate quarters right off the Senate floor.
He says he’s eyeing McConnell’s job once the majority leader decides to retire. But what will Cornyn do in the interim, when he maxes out his time as whip and McConnell remains, potentially for years to come?
He paused, and said: “I don’t know. We’ll have to see how things develop.”
“I’ve made no secret of the fact that I would be interested in moving up once Mitch decides not to do it again and whenever that is, I’ll be looking for that opportunity,” Cornyn said. “If it doesn’t present itself, we’ll have had a great run in the Senate and I enjoy that part of my work, too.”