Voices: John Cornyn can cut a deal with Democrats on guns — but he’s got a Ted Cruz problem

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El Senador Ted Cruz (R-TX) camina por el Centro de Visitantes del Capitolio mientras el Secretario de Estado de los Estados Unidos, Antony Blinken, y el Secretario de Defensa de los Estados Unidos, Lloyd Austin, no aparecen en la foto, informan a los comités de Servicios Armados y Relaciones Exteriores del Senado sobre Afganistán en el Capitolio de los Estados Unidos en Washington. DC, el 2 de febrero de 2022. (Foto de MANDEL NGAN/AFP) (Foto de MANDEL NGAN/AFP vía Getty Images) (AFP via Getty Images)
El Senador Ted Cruz (R-TX) camina por el Centro de Visitantes del Capitolio mientras el Secretario de Estado de los Estados Unidos, Antony Blinken, y el Secretario de Defensa de los Estados Unidos, Lloyd Austin, no aparecen en la foto, informan a los comités de Servicios Armados y Relaciones Exteriores del Senado sobre Afganistán en el Capitolio de los Estados Unidos en Washington. DC, el 2 de febrero de 2022. (Foto de MANDEL NGAN/AFP) (Foto de MANDEL NGAN/AFP vía Getty Images) (AFP via Getty Images)

In the days and now weeks since the deadly elementary school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, John Cornyn has emerged as the Senate’s main Republican voice on gun negotiations with Democrats. This he is doing with the blessing of Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who made him the GOP’s point person to negotiate with Democrats Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Chris Murphy of Connecticut.

Where Cornyn’s junior colleague Ted Cruz basks in the national spotlight thanks to both his second-place finish in the 2016 GOP presidential primary and his histrionic culture-war stunts (reading Green Eggs and Ham on the Senate floor, for instance, or wrapping bacon around the muzzle of an AR-15 to cook it with the heat of gunfire), the senior Senator – whose silver hair and suits complemented with black cowboy boots underscore his Lone Star state persona – is the ultimate insider.

Whereas Cruz seemed to emerge fully formed from the head of Athena after he beat Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst in the Texas Senate primary in 2012 despite never having held elected office, Cornyn climbed the ladder. He served as a district judge, a justice on the Texas Supreme Court and then state attorney general before being elected to Congress in 2002. By no means a moderate (he’s voted against many of President Joe Biden’s nominees and is a hardliner on border security), he’s moved up the ranks of the Senate GOP conference with ease, serving as Republican whip from 2013 to 2019.

Now, Cornyn faces the ultimate test of his power. If talks fall apart, he will be blamed as a Republican obstructionist by Democrats. That could be harmful to his career as more voters in the Houston and San Antonio suburbs that bred him become more Democratic. But if he reaches a deal, he risks being seen as a gun-grabber and a RINO.

On Monday afternoon, he emerged from McConnell’s office, explaining the difficulties of negotiation with some optimism. He also pushed back against Murphy’s statement, which had expressed hope that negotiations could yield a deal by the end of the week.

“I don’t think arbitrary deadlines help us very much,” Cornyn told reporters, while munching on Hershey’s Kisses. “Building consensus takes time.” At the same time, he said he was opposed to raising the minimum age for firearm purchases, noting how two circuit courts have ruled against it. “States are free to do that, but I would say that would be controversial. But that’s being discussed.”

Cornyn’s biggest obstacle might not be Democrats, however, but criticism from Cruz.

In the past, the two have had a testy relationship, with Cruz not endorsing Cornyn for re-election in 2014 until he won the nomination. Cornyn, for his part, didn’t endorse Cruz in his presidential run. The two Senators appear to have patched things up since then. Still, speaking to reporters on Monday, Cruz — clad in jeans, a flannel shirt and glasses instead of a suit and tie — went on a trademark monologue for a gaggle of reporters, barely letting them get a word in edgewise for nine minutes (as is typical for a Cruz scrum).

“I have repeatedly offered legislation to target violent criminals, to prevent felons and fugitives from illegally buying firearms,” he said, before characteristically shifting to the claim that Democrats want to restrict the rights of law-abiding citizens and then blaming Democratic-led cities for high crime rates. He also faulted Democrats for blocking legislation that he promoted with ranking Judiciary Committee Republican Chuck Grassley after the Sandy Hook shooting. But when asked whether he trusted Cornyn, Cruz answered with a dodge.

“I know that there’s nothing y’all like more than trying to pit one Republican against another,” he sniped before going back to lecturing about Democrats filibustering his legislation. Not necessarily a no, but not necessarily a yes either.

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