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60 Proof

Senator John Cornyn on limited government, how the Senate works, and the pursuit of a filibuster-proof majority.

11:00 PM, Dec 3, 2003 • By TERRY EASTLAND
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ASKED HOW his life has changed during his first year as the junior senator from Texas, John Cornyn has a quick answer: "It's totally unpredictable." He explains: "I was used to having a schedule and keeping it. . . . But here you're subject to a calendar set by the leadership. It's very hard to plan things."

When I interviewed Cornyn the other day, the Senate appeared ready to adjourn before Thanksgiving. He was planning to be in Texas in December. But then the clock of unpredictability sounded: The leadership announced that the Senate would have to meet again next Tuesday to finish a spending bill that would sustain roughly a third of the government.

Actually, Cornyn can't be that unhappy at the prospect of a December session, since the leadership has indicated a willingness to push again for a vote on the Class Action Fairness Act, a bill he is co-sponsoring. It would ensure that consumers bringing successful class-action lawsuits don't wind up with just a few bucks, their lawyers banking thousands and even millions. The bill was filibustered earlier this year, with the effort to break the filibuster failing by a single vote.

Two bills proposed by Cornyn already have been enacted. One--a classic example of a senator tending to a home-state issue--allows the federal judiciary finally to hold court in Plano, the largest city in the Eastern District of Texas. The other eases the path to citizenship for the more than 35,000 permanent residents serving in the military by reducing the waiting time of required service before naturalization from three years to one.

Immigration issues have a special attraction for Cornyn, the first Texas senator from San Antonio, a city he regards, because of its demographics, as a "perfect microcosm" of the state. Last month, he introduced legislation that would correct a disparity in current law under which Canadians with border crossing cards can visit the United States for up to six months but Mexicans with the cards can stay for only 72 hours. The unequal treatment, he says, also is bad economics, hurting trade along the border.

Cornyn's voice sharpens with urgency as he talks about more ambitious immigration reform--"an issue no one really wants to deal with." He says the law should clearly distinguish migrants who are "merely looking for a better life for themselves and their loved ones" from "smugglers, drug dealers and terrorists" who are the nation's "real threats" and need to be identified, detained and deported.

Accordingly, he has proposed a new law that would license migrants to work in the United States during a set period of months and encourage them to return home afterward. Hearings for his Border Security and Immigration Reform Act could be held as early as February.

Cornyn is a conservative Republican working in a Washington dominated by Republicans who no longer swear fidelity to limited government. It isn't an easy assignment. Cornyn reluctantly joined his Senate colleagues in supporting the Medicare prescription-drug bill, which the president and the congressional leadership regard as a major accomplishment. The cost of the legislation--$395 billion over the next 10 years--may create pressure to raise taxes.

Cornyn's committee assignments include budget ("to understand how this place works"), armed services, environment and public works, and judiciary. The last has proved a perfect fit for the former Texas attorney general and Supreme Court justice. His subcommittee on the Constitution has held hearings on issues both controversial (same-sex marriage) and arcane (the continuity of Congress, "to make sure our government can function if the worst happens").

Cornyn also has played a prominent role in arguing for President Bush's judicial nominees--and therefore against the unprecedented filibuster strategy employed by the Democratic minority. Because of that strategy, 60 votes now may be needed to confirm a nominee--60, because it takes 60 votes to break a filibuster and permit an up-or-down vote.

Cornyn reflects a new Republican realism about the Democrats' filibustering. He knows that it can't be stopped by a change in Senate rules, since that would require 67 votes. He also knows that it can't be stopped by a parliamentary move requiring only 51 votes, since there are eight to ten (nameless) Republican senators unwilling to go along with that. Cornyn alludes to the "next election." It will occur after the first two years of his six, and his hope is that it will produce a Republican Senate that finally is filibuster-proof.

Terry Eastland is publisher of The Weekly Standard. This column originally appeared in the Dallas Morning News.