By SUZANNE GAMBOA Associated Press
WASHINGTON - John Cornyn, the conservative Republican senator from Texas, didn't wait until Barack Obama was sworn in as president to catapult Democrats back to real world politics.
Hours before Obama's inauguration Tuesday, Cornyn gummed up plans for a speedy voice vote confirming Hillary Clinton as secretary of state. He wanted more transparency on foreign donations to a foundation headed by her husband, former President Bill Clinton.
Clinton got her Senate nod Wednesday, 94-2, a roll call vote with Cornyn support.
Cornyn insists he was acting as a Texas senator concerned about government openness. But he is also just starting his new role as head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee responsible for getting Republicans elected to the Senate.
"What he did was raise the flag the senatorial committee was going to be watching," Republican strategist Rich Galen said.
Cornyn cruised to an easy victory in November for a second Senate term in a state McCain won. He earned a reputation during his first term as a loyal defender of former President George W. Bush and his administration.
With his new job and with Bush gone, Cornyn has become a GOP guard dog tasked with shredding the Democrats' election ambitions while raising money for 2010 candidates. Taking a poke at Clinton could draw contributors.
Other Senate Republicans will join him in the effort. But Cornyn is the one responsible for making sure the GOP message resounds with his party's donors, and he believes he's found the right tone.
"The public is less tolerant of sort of the harshness and angry tone they've seen out of Washington," he said. "I think it's entirely appropriate to talk about differences in a civil and dignified way ... and then let's let the people decide.
Cornyn's affability will work in the GOP's favor, Galen said.
"The statesmanlike and judicial demeanor is really good cover for a very crafty and smart political guy ... and that's the kind of guy that is needed," Galen said of Cornyn, a former Texas Supreme Court justice.
Some say Cornyn's moderate demeanor belies a conservative political animal underneath.
Immigration advocate Frank Sharry said he and other advocates thought Cornyn would be an ally in their push for immigration reform when he arrived.
But he ended up being one of their greatest obstacles. He introduced his own bill in 2005 to oppose one proposed by Sens. John McCain, R-Arizona and Ted Kennedy, D-Mass. He also voted against the 2006 immigration bill and worked to move the 2007 bill to the right, dooming a compromise, said Sharry, president of America's Voice, a pro-immigration group.
"I suspect he's going to have a hard time again appearing moderate, while trying to raise money from the right. He talks nice, while sharpening the knife for your back. We are not going to be fooled again," Sharry said.
Republicans say they face an uphill battle to regain ground in the Senate. The party has 41 seats to the Democrats' 58.
Cornyn moved fast in the Senate since arriving in 2002, landing plum committee assignments in his first year and quickly becoming part of Senate Republican leadership.
He leapt out of the starting gate this year as NRSC chairman. Two days into the new year, he warned Democrats he would block any attempt to seat Al Franken as Minnesota senator until his Republican rival exhausted all his legal options. He has been keeping up the drumbeat.
That move turned the tables on Democrats who insisted that Roland Burris, appointed by indicted Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich to fill President Barack Obama's Senate seat, have proper credentials to take his Senate seat.
Most recently, his committee took on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in a news release Wednesday for inviting lobbyists to an inaugural brunch two days earlier. Spokesman Brian Walsh said in the statement that in order for Obama to change the culture in Washington he'd first have to change Reid.
"I didn't come to the Senate to be a wall flower and the only tools you really have available in the Senate are your voice and your vote," Cornyn said.