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Cornyn-Latino summit in Austin 

By Gilbert Garcia

Politicians generally start mending fences the year BEFORE an election, not the year after. But only a few months after beating Democratic challenger Rick Noriega (and five years before he'll again have to face Texas voters), John Cornyn seems to have been bitten by the bipartisan bug.

How else to explain the fact that Cornyn publicly rejected Rush Limbaugh's branding of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor as a "racist," and encouraged his Republican Senate colleagues to wait until her confirmation hearings are completed before they make up their minds about her â?? quite a novel concept. An even bigger surprise from the oft-divisive Cornyn was his request to meet with the state's Mexican American Legislative Caucus, making him the first sitting U.S. Senator to ever break (roast-beef-sandwich) bread with the group.

The Cornyn-MALC summit this afternoon was remarkably free of rancor. Cornyn listened to concerns by Latino legislators and invited guests about health care, immigration, and Sotomayor's confirmation process, and spoke with unfailing civility and deference, even while adhering to his well-known conservative views.

On the issue of health care, for instance, he patiently listened to Rep. Veronica Gonzales (D-McAllen) as she told him about a woman in her district who is battling cancer and "is not poor enough for Medicaid and not old enough for Medicare."

Cornyn said: "Texas unfortunately has the highest percentage of uninsured people in the country, but there's a variety of reasons for that," including people not taking advantage of their CHIP eligibility, twentysomethings convincing themselves they're invincible, and small businesses struggling to provide insurance for their employees. Both Cornyn and Gonzales referenced a recent New Yorker piece that investigated exorbitant health-care costs in McAllen, and indicated that doctors in that city pad their incomes by ordering excessive tests. "There are no easy answers, but we need to look at that," Cornyn said.

He described health-care reform as "a train that's left the station and is barreling down the tracks." He fretted that a government health-care option would destroy competition and lead to more than 100 million Americans shifting from private to public health insurance.

On immigration, Cornyn and MALC chair Trey Martinez Fischer agreed that a comprehensive approach was needed, and the senator reiterated his stated support for a temporary guest-worker program. At a brief, post-meeting press conference, QueBlog asked Cornyn how he currently views the controversial border-wall issue. He responded: "No one believes that building fencing â?? or what the Border Patrol calls 'tactical infrastructure' â?? will solve the problem of border security completely. I'm not so naive as to believe that either. What I do think though is that whether you're a member of the United States military fighting terrorists in Iraq or professional law-enforcement personnel dealing with border security, that we ought to yield to the advice of the experts.

"What the experts told us is that they needed this tool as a part of what they needed for border security." Cornyn also emphasized that the pro-border-wall bill he voted for also met with support from then-Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Cornyn explained his new wilingness to engage with Latino leaders by saying that during last year's election campaign, he became aware of negative perceptions of him. He accepted the blame for his partisan-pitbull rep by saying that he'd not done a good enough job of meeting face-to-face with various state groups.

If you're not convinced that Cornyn is carving out a less partisan niche for himself, consider that he voluntarily uttered a sentence that many members of his party would resist even when threatened with repeated waterboarding: "I congratulate Mr. Franken." And he didn't even snarl when he said it.

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