As congressional Republicans navigate their minority status on Capitol Hill, Sen. John Cornyn has wasted little time establishing himself as a thorn in the administration's side.
The Texas Republican delayed a Senate vote to confirm President Obama's pick of Hillary Clinton as secretary of state. He forced the Senate Judiciary Committee to put off for a week a decision on attorney general nominee Eric Holder, and promised trouble if Senate Democratic leaders tried to seat Al Franken of Minnesota before challenges to his election are resolved.
And to cap the president's first few days in office, Cornyn asserted that Obama's plan to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility in Cuba would make America less safe.
"A dangerous step in the wrong direction," he said.
It's a bold gambit for the second-term senator, whose home-state reputation had always trended moderate and whose strong ties with the Bush family once cleared his political path but now could be seen as a handicap.
His delay of the Clinton confirmation vote led to an admonishment on the Senate floor by fellow Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the party's 2008 presidential nominee.
"We shouldn't delay," McCain said, taking direct aim at Cornyn. "I would remind all my colleagues we had an election ... and this nation has come together as it has not for some time."
Cornyn, 56, eventually voted to confirm Clinton, and he defended his push for a delay to advocate for more disclosure of foreign contributors to her husband's foundation.
"My concern is not whether Hillary Clinton is qualified to be secretary of state. She is," he said in a column published Sunday in a home-state newspaper, adding that "there remains too little transparency and too many unknowns" about donors to President Clinton's charitable organization.
Trying To Shorten Obama's Honeymoon
But Cornyn's high-profile stands may have another purpose. As chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, he needs to rouse a demoralized base while stanching the hemorrhaging of GOP Senate seats when the 2010 midterm elections arrive. During the past two midterm elections, the party lost a total of 13 Senate seats previously held by Republicans (it will be 14 if Franken's win in Minnesota is upheld).
As of now, 19 Senate seats held by Republicans and 17 by Democrats will be up for grabs in 2010.
Cornyn's task of wooing viable Republican candidates, raising money in a tough environment and deciding where to spend that money has been complicated by the planned retirements of four GOP Senate incumbents: Kit Bond of Missouri, George Voinovich of Ohio, Mel Martinez of Florida and Sam Brownback of Kansas.
Republican leaders have also been quietly pressuring two-term Kentucky Sen. Jim Bunning, 77, to retire.
So it's no surprise that Cornyn is working to rally the GOP base by carving out a stronger image on the Hill as a scrapper and champion of conservative ideals.
"He's clearly trying to draw some line in the sand where he sees vulnerabilities or points he can score," says Craig Varoga, a top Democratic strategist. "He's made the calculation that the shorter the Obama honeymoon, the better."
Cornyn's saber-rattling has its limits: In addition to voting to confirm Clinton, he was among only 10 Republicans who joined Democrats on Monday to approve Obama's Treasury secretary nominee Timothy Geithner. Still, Cornyn's positioning has pleased conservatives trying to look beyond the results of the 2008 election.
"There's such a Barack Obama love fest going on that I don't interpret his moves as partisan," says Wendy Long of the Judicial Confirmation Network, which works to get conservatives named to the judiciary. "He's concerned with process, fairness and the Constitution."
Setting Up The GOP For 2010
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky is seen by many Republicans as skilled at procedural fights and "herding cats," as one GOP operative said. But neither he nor Minority Whip Jon Kyl of Arizona is viewed as a dynamic messenger for the party, which is just plain hurting for leadership these days.
And arguably the two most prominent Republican senators, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and McCain, are not considered champions of the conservative message.
Robert Bluey, an influential conservative blogger, said he sees Cornyn, a former Texas Supreme Court judge and state attorney general, as "more of the bulldog who can get the base fired up." Bluey says he believes that Cornyn has significant challenges and some opportunity ahead.
"By this time next year, the [2010 Senate] races will be defined and we'll know who's in the lead," he says. "Can the Republicans get up to speed by then? That's the challenge."
The opportunity? Perhaps that comes in the retirement of four GOP senators, Bluey says: "In some of those cases, the party would be better for a fresh face. It goes to the heart of what younger party members are talking about — the need for candidates who connect with young conservatives."
Republicans desperately need a good election cycle in 2010. What that means for Cornyn is pretty simple, party leaders say: Prevent Democrats from picking up another Senate seat and reaching 60 votes, the number needed to cut off a filibuster.
There are clearly mixed feelings about how nice-guy Cornyn's emergence as agent provocateur will play out in that quest.
"What he's doing now is probably borne of the expectation that being obstructive and unpopular now is probably good for the party in 2010," says Varoga, the Democratic strategist. "But I think the strategy has the potential to backfire."
"He has made the calculation that anything that is problematic for the Obama administration is good for him, that turbulence is good for him and the NRSC," he said. "But that is not where the country is."
Maybe not now, but Cornyn appears to be banking on a time in the not-too-distant future when being a leader of the loyal opposition will pay electoral dividends.