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A Charge to Keep

From the November 17, 2002 Dallas Morning News: Meet John Cornyn, member of the "Bush Senators."

11:00 PM, Nov 18, 2002 • By TERRY EASTLAND
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HISTORICALLY CONSIDERED, Texas politics has seen a large (as befits Texas) number of flamboyant personalities. Lyndon Baines Johnson, for one. Mark it down: Sen.-elect John Cornyn, a man not given to fancy speeches or grand gestures, isn't among them.

In remarks to supporters on election night, the soft-spoken former judge interpreted the returns in his race as a vote not about himself or even his politics but about "the management of the U.S. Senate." Texas voters, he said, wanted a Republican Senate.

By itself, the outcome in Texas couldn't have delivered the Senate to the GOP, since the seat Cornyn will occupy has been held by a Republican, the retiring Phil Gramm. To gain control of the Senate, the Republicans had to pick up at least one seat--and they netted two. Cornyn explains the making of the new Republican majority as he does his own election: Voters nationwide, he observed during a visit last week to Washington, "said that gridlock was unacceptable on important and fundamental matters."

Neutrally considered, gridlock is that state of affairs involving government in which disagreement between the president and Congress leads to no final action on or even to outright rejection of the president's proposals. Gridlock is more likely when at least one house of Congress is controlled by the party opposite the president's--i.e., when there is divided government.

The Senate being Democratic during President Bush's first two years in office, disagreement "on important and fundamental matters" often occurred, and Bush made "gridlock" a campaign issue in critical Senate races. Nov. 5 saw the election of what might be called "Bush Senators," Cornyn among them.

A Bush Senator is a senator who might not have been elected in 2002 but was, in part because of Bush's support. Bush Senators were elected from states the GOP could have lost (Texas, Colorado, North Carolina, South Carolina, New Hampshire, and Tennessee) and from states the Democrats could have held (Georgia, Minnesota, and Missouri). Because of their gratitude to the president, Bush Senators believe that whatever else they may do in Washington, they have a charge to keep: help the president defeat gridlock.

Cornyn made that clear when asked whether there is any legislation he himself might want to write. "There is a lot I'm interested in and campaigned on, such as access to good quality health care," he said. "But what we need to do in the immediate future is to take care of unfinished business." He cited two bills that stalled in Congress: on homeland security and terrorism insurance.

The irony of the Bush Senators is that some gridlock will end even before they are sworn in. Final action in the lame-duck session is all but certain on the homeland security and terrorism insurance legislation. And two judicial nominees who might not have been confirmed had the Senate remained Democratic now appear likely to be.

Come January, the presence of the Bush Senators will mean a Senate more inclined to work from the same page as the president. But ambition being what it is, it is a mistake to think the Bush Senators will fail to leave their own marks, or at least try.

In Cornyn's case, he is all but certain to join the Judiciary Committee. That would be a natural assignment for a lawyer whose public service has been as a Texas district judge, a Supreme Court justice and, since 1998, the state's attorney general. Cornyn doubtless will be able to help the Republican majority on that committee reform the broken confirmation process, so that nominees are given hearings and votes on a reasonably timely basis. He also is likely to have opportunities over his term to address a broad range of matters--among them terrorism, tort reform, abortion, federalism, affirmative action, privacy, immigration, and firearms.

From the economist Gramm (of the banking, budget, and finance committees) to the lawyer Cornyn, Texas thus will see a change in its Senate representation. And it won't be one merely of interest and committee assignments.

Like Ronald Reagan, Gramm entered politics as a conservative willing to challenge conventional views and who saw himself as part of a movement intending to change the established political order. Cornyn is a conservative but not of the movement variety. His conservatism is much like Bush's: It assumes for itself mainstream status (though that may yet to be achieved). It is understated, even quiet. And it often advertises its aims in dull but compelling terms. Such as taking care of unfinished business.

Terry Eastland is publisher of The Weekly Standard.