John Cornyn: Obama ‘does not speak for the U.S. government exclusively’

Meredith Shiner
Political correspondent
Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas, accompanied by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., right, talks with reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 24, 2015, following a GOP policy meeting. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo)

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas on Tuesday said President Barack Obama “does not speak for the U.S. government exclusively” in international negotiations and defended the controversial open letter to Iranian officials, which was signed by most Senate Republicans, questioning Obama’s authority to cut a deal.

In a wide-ranging, 30-minute interview with Yahoo News in his Capitol office overlooking the Supreme Court, Cornyn said the president is “in denial” over Congress’s role in foreign policy, remarking that Obama is attempting “to give Congress ‘the Heisman’ in terms of our involvement,” referring to the college football trophy depicting a running back strong-arming a defender. On Monday night, Vice President Joe Biden described the letter signed by 47 Senate Republicans as “beneath the dignity of an institution I revere.”

Cornyn also addressed the issue of voting rights, which Obama championed this weekend in a speech in Selma, Ala., commemorating the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. Obama urged Congress to heed the Supreme Court’s call to amend the Voting Rights Act, to reinstate the Department of Justice’s ability to oversee jurisdictions that had a history of discriminating against minority voters. Cornyn said that the push to fix the so-called “pre-clearance” provision, which was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013, is an effort to “drive divisions and create phony narratives.” Cornyn, who is responsible for scheduling floor votes, said he does not believe Congress should take up legislation to amend the act. He is the first top GOP Congressional leader to publicly say so.

Below is Yahoo News’s interview with Cornyn, lightly edited for clarity and brevity, on these issues and more.

On Iran

Yahoo News: Sen. Tom Cotton’s letter on Iran has drawn significant criticism. Last night, Biden attacked the Arkansas Republican’s letter as unprecedented and inappropriate. Iran’s foreign minister said the letter has “no legal value and is mostly a propaganda ploy.” Do you feel comfortable with Republicans expressing these opinions during ongoing negotiations? Is there a precedent for this? Is the negative attention this letter has gotten justified?

John Cornyn: Congress has an important role to play here. I know that the president is in denial and wants to reject Congress’s appropriate role. All our letter pointed out is that our government isn’t a monolith, and that the president doesn’t wield all the authority and power under our Constitution — that we’re a government of separated and divided powers. In particular, I think the important point was made that the term of any agreement [the president] might strike with Iran will not outlast his term of office, absent Congressional approval. … What the president seems to be on a path to doing is trying to secure some sort of legacy settlement with Iran over its nuclear weapons, but it can’t last more than 21 more months if it was signed today.

Even with precedents under international law supporting a potential agreement?  

Yes. I think that’s why the president's attempt to try to go it alone and try to give Congress “the Heisman” in terms of our involvement, has been, to my view, rejected on a bipartisan basis. We haven’t taken up [Iran sanctions legislation] requiring Congressional approval, but we will, shortly after the March 24 deadline for the negotiations. … I think it’s the president hiding his head in the sand, and when he gets caught with the consequences of his unilateral actions, he gets mad. But he shouldn’t have started down the path.

He shouldn’t have started down the path of...?

Unilateralism.

But there are also other countries involved. This isn’t a bilateral agreement between the United States and Iran. The United Kingdom is involved, China, France, Germany, Russia.

And I would imagine they have all of their government involved. The problem is not that there are not other countries involved. The problem is that the president does not speak for the U.S. government exclusively. Congress has an appropriate role to play, and the president has rejected that.

So you don’t think this sends a negative message to our allies, who are also negotiating on this?

I think all this letter does is state the fact that the president doesn’t have plenary authority under our form of government. 

On Selma and the Voting Rights Act

Did you consider going to Selma this past weekend for the ceremonies honoring the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, and are you concerned that issues of voting rights and enfranchisement seem to be becoming more partisan? The vast majority of political attendees in Selma were Democratic, and the president’s line about voting rights and fixing the law in this year’s State of the Union garnered mainly Democratic applause.

Well, I think the Voting Rights Act was a seminal victory for our country and a great healing moment. But there are some who want to continue to drive divisions and create phony narratives. As you know, the argument is over the preclearance requirements in states like mine, which actually have a better record of minority voter participation than states that aren’t covered. So I had a pre-existing [scheduling commitment] to a criminal justice panel at the American Enterprise Institute with Cory Booker and Mike Lee, so that’s the main reason I didn’t go, but I don’t think anybody should doubt our national commitment to heal the wounds of racial division. I think we’ve come an awful long way. I was proud to see President [George W.] Bush there.

Have you talked to Leader Mitch McConnell, who has a deep history in the Civil Rights movement, about moving legislation that would fix that formula? You mentioned that one of your concerns is that the original law unduly affects places that have made progress on this front, but there are still places where people are having difficulty voting. Do you think it’s important for Congress to address that formula and to amend it, as the Supreme Court (which you can see here, from this office) has asked Congress to do? 

I think Eric Holder and this administration have trumped up and created an issue where there really isn’t one. For example, the attorney general sued my state for requiring a voter ID, saying somehow that suppressed minority votes, when you can get one for free. And the Supreme Court has passed, in an opinion by John Paul Stevens, who is not exactly a conservative, that this is a reasonable way of protecting the integrity of the ballot and it doesn’t unduly burden the ability of minority voters  to cast a ballot. [Editor's note: Justice Stevens has said his judgment was specific to the case and “should not be taken as authority that voter ID laws are always OK.”].

So a lot of this is, I think, theatrics, to try to create division where there isn’t [any]. That, to me, is one of the shames of… the first African-American president of the United States. You would think this would be a great time of national pride and great national healing, but unfortunately, this president has tried to use his bully pulpit and his presidency to try to cause division, and that’s a shame.

So you don’t think that Congress needs to fix the formula?

No.

On his pending bill to combat sex trafficking

According to the Library of Congress website, there are approximately 40 bills or resolutions on the issue of sex trafficking this Congress, and we’re barely into March.  So obviously, this is an issue where there is a lot of an agreement that this needs to be addressed, but not necessarily a consensus on how to address it. Do you think your legislation is a comprehensive approach, or a first step in addressing this problem?

I think it’s the latter. I think it’s a step. But I think it’s important around here, after the Senate has been essentially non-functioning for the last four years, that we show we can function. To me, being a member of the majority now, I think that’s very important. … This is truly a consensus piece of legislation. If other people have good ideas, then I welcome them. I think one of the mistakes we’ve made in the recent past is thinking that everything we do has to be comprehensive and all-inclusive. Well, that brings problems of its own. The more comprehensive, the more complicated it is. So I think it’s really important that we start and we make progress, and I view this bill as doing that.

Do you think we need to do a better job of counting and classifying and finding out who these people who are being trafficked are, and is there anything in your bill that actually helps toward that goal?

Well, sure, I think that getting good — better — information is important. I would say that even if somebody might quibble with the numbers more or less, plus or minus, it’s still a horrific situation that our bill would make progress toward. So if there’s a way for us to get more comprehensive information, that would be good. The problem is that this is vastly underreported, because many of the people who are victims don’t even consider themselves as victims. They think that their pimp or the person who traffics them is actually their boyfriend or taking care of them, or providing them with gifts in exchange for extracting sexual favors for their clients.

Does this bill increase the number of visas available to victims of trafficking who are not citizens? And if not, why?

This basically establishes parity for American victims of trafficking. You can already get — if you’re a victim of trafficking and you’re not an American citizen — you can get a visa. Basically, as long as you’re cooperating with law enforcement, you can get a visa to stay now. 

And there are enough of those visas available?

Well, there’s a cap on them, and maybe we need to look at that number. I am sure that’s something that there’d be some good-faith disagreement on, as to whether it’s adequate or not. But it does exist, and I’m certainly open to adjusting it if we need to.

On immigration and the GOP’s work on being a governing majority

A few months into this new Republican majority, how would you assess where the GOP is? There obviously was a struggle, especially on the House side, to fund the Department of Homeland Security.

Part of the challenge that the House has had is because somehow, because of a disagreement on tactics, they started down a pathway toward attaching this policy rider to an appropriations bill, when that tactic could not work.

Because that’s never happened to Senate Republicans before?

Of course it has. I didn’t embrace that tactic, either. So I think we need to be smarter about it, and especially given the president’s unwillingness to engage and work with Congress, we need to do our job, and then we need to be held accountable for that. And the president needs to do his job. And if he doesn’t, he needs to be held accountable.

Have you and the leadership team talked about any sort of piecemeal alternatives to working on immigration reform, and do you think that’s important for the party?

I think it is, and I think we should. I am interested to see what the House can pass. They’ve been talking about a border security bill, and they’ve been talking about adding to that some interior security enforcement provisions. … My hope is that we can bring whatever the House passes, bring it to the floor, and Majority Leader McConnell has promised an open amendment process, so anybody with a good idea that can get 60 votes could modify it.