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By W. Gardner Selby December 12, 2013

UPDATED: Cornyn backed Wall Street bailout and law hiking taxes for many, but he's opposed Obamacare and occasionally spurned increases in debt ceiling

As U.S. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas drew a surprise challenger, a political action committee suggested the second-term senator hasn’t always voted right.

Shortly before the Dec. 9, 2013, filing deadline for Texas candidates, U.S. Rep. Steve Stockman of Friendswood withdrew his filing to seek re-election and instead submitted paperwork to challenge Cornyn and others for the party’s 2014 Senate nomination.

Politico said in a news story posted that day that Stockman’s entry could force Cornyn "to tack farther right as he tries to win over a corner of the party that has recently been skeptical of him." The story later quoted a representative of the Senate Conservatives Fund, a PAC founded by former Republican Sen. James DeMint, as heralding Stockman’s foray into the race.

"We haven’t decided yet whether we will endorse Steve Stockman, but we’re glad he is running," Matt Hoskins, the group’s leader, said in a statement. "Texas deserves two conservative fighters in the Senate, not just one. John Cornyn has voted to increase the debt, raise taxes, bail out Wall Street banks and fund Obamacare. He’s part of the problem in Washington and voters deserve an alternative."

Votes to hike the debt and taxes, bail out banks--and to fund Obamacare? We were curious.

Bailout vote

Let’s get the bailout, um, out of the way. On Oct. 1, 2008, Cornyn was on the prevailing "aye" side of the Senate when the body voted 74-25 in favor of a $700 billion package to rescue the financial markets, including Wall Street banks. He and fellow Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison both voted for the proposal.

On May 17, 2010, CNN quoted Cornyn as sticking by his support for the Wall Street bailout program that subsequently turned out to be unpopular with voters. The measure, Cornyn said, "was represented to us as an absolute necessity or else the economy would melt down and we'd experience a repeat of perhaps the depression of the '30s. I'm responsible and proud of the vote I cast at the time because I thought it was a public necessity."

Cornyn noted to CNN, though, that he later voted to end the Troubled Asset Relief Program "even though I voted for it initially because I think it's been abused and I think the American people are experiencing bailout fatigue and now we're being asked to share in part of the bailout of Greece through the International Monetary Fund through our contribution there. So I don't blame people who are upset with the way that the bailouts have grown and been abused. But I think at the time it was the right decision to make."

He added, according to CNN: "People understand that sometimes you have to make unpopular decisions of necessity. At the time it was the right decision to make."

Increasing debt

Has Cornyn voted to increase debt?

By email, Hoskins pointed out that on Aug. 2, 2011, Cornyn voted to increase the federal debt limit by $2.4 trillion.

Historically, Congress raises the debt limit so the government can continue paying its creditors. And, as Josh Gordon of the Virginia-based Concord Coalition, which focuses on fiscal policy, reminded us by email, votes to lift the ceiling are not the same as raising debt. "The vote to increase the debt ceiling has no bearing on levels of debt--which are determined by votes for spending policy and tax policy," Gordon wrote. "By the time it comes to vote on the debt ceiling, the decisions to increase the debt have already been made, and the debt limit increase is just allowing the country to continue operating economically."

Regardless, congressional debates leading up to the latest debt-limit hikes have been boisterous with Republican opponents saying the increases wouldn’t be acceptable without simultaneous spending cuts.

According to online Senate vote tallies, though, Cornyn voted against the latest debt-limit bump, approved  by the Senate Oct. 16, 2013. Then again, he voted for the August 2011 hike noted by Hoskins and earlier voted in favor of Congress raising the limit on May 23, 2003; on Nov. 17, 2004; and on March 16, 2006, Senate tallies show. On the flip side, he also voted against the measure raising the limit as approved by the Senate by 53 to 42 on Sept. 27, 2007 and against another successful increase, wrapped into housing reform legislation, on July 26, 2008. An Oct. 15, 2013, report by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service lists half a dozen other votes to raise the debt limit with Cornyn in the Senate; we didn’t check on how he stood on those.

Raising taxes

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On Jan. 1, 2013, Hoskins said, John Cornyn voted for the "fiscal cliff tax hike that raised taxes by $600 billion and forced nearly 80% of Americans to pay higher taxes," referring to the American Taxpayer Relief Act.

As noted in a Jan. 2, 2013, Associated Press news article, the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center in Washington, D.C., estimated that 77 percent of U.S. households would face higher taxes overall thanks to the approved act, mostly because the law did not extend a temporary reduction in the Social Security payroll tax worth about $1,000 to a worker making $50,000 annually.

Hoskins cited a Jan. 1, 2013, blog post by the conservative Heritage Foundation for his $600 billion figure, which the post described as the amount of additional federal revenue the government expected to reap over 10 years thanks to the measure.

The act had multiple elements, as summarized Jan. 1, 2013, by The Washington Post. Most significantly, income tax rates were permanently increased for families with annual incomes above $450,000 and individuals earning more than $400,000, but rates did not change for taxpayers earning less. The wealthiest Americans also had to start paying a higher tax on capital gains and dividends.

Among other features, the law left the payroll tax break for employees to expire, the Post noted, while temporary business tax breaks—benefiting everything from R&D and wind energy to race-car track owners—were extended a year.

In a Jan. 1, 2013, statement issued after he voted, Cornyn said: "I voted for this bill because it prevents a huge tax increase on 99% of all Texans and Americans." He was referring to income tax rate reductions put in place under President George W. Bush being preserved for all but the super-rich. "Nonetheless," Cornyn said, "I am dismayed at the lack of seriousness by the president on dealing with the core issues of our fiscal problems. Our spending is unsustainable and it is high time the president and his party engage in meaningful dialogue to get this county's spending under control."

Funding Obamacare

The Obamacare law, formally the Affordable Care Act, came to be in 2010 without drawing a single Republican vote and Cornyn, like many Republicans, has been a critic/foe of the law widening access to health insurance in part by requiring most Americans to purchase coverage.

Hoskins said, though, that Cornyn twice voted to fund the law. On March 20, 2013, Hoskins noted, Cornyn voted for final passage of the fiscal 2013 appropriations act, with first-term Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and 25 other senators voting no. And on Sept. 27, 2013, Hoskins said, Cornyn voted to bring Senate debate to a close on the fiscal 2014 appropriations act "and to allow an up-or-down vote on the Democratic amendment to fund Obamacare." Cruz and 16 other senators voted no.

By email, Cornyn campaign spokesman Drew Brandewie pointed out a July 29, 2013, analysis by the Congressional Research Service indicating that failures to fund the government might not have stopped spending related to the Obamacare law. According to the analysis, U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., had asked the service what would happen to the health care law’s implementation in the event of a lapse in appropriation funding, resulting in a government shutdown. The service replied that "substantial" implementation might continue because the government could draw on other funding sources and agencies are permitted to continue to perform certain activities even if appropriations are stalled. Also, the service, said, after the government asked Congress for more than $1 billion to implement Obamacare provisions in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2013, no such money was appropriated; the government found the dollars from other federal kitties. If Congress similarly resisted an administration request for $1.4 billion in implementation money in fiscal 2014, the service said, "it seems likely that the administration will continue to rely on alternative sources of funding to support" Obamacare "activities."

Our ruling

The PAC said Cornyn "has voted to increase the debt, raise taxes, bail out Wall Street banks, and fund Obamacare."

It's not that simple.

Cornyn voted for the 2008 bailout and has occasionally voted to raise the debt ceiling. Also, Cornyn’s 2013 vote for the taxpayer-relief act raised taxes for most households though, signficantly, it also preserved lower income-tax rates than ones that would have hit if the measure didn’t make it into law.

Finally, the idea that Cornyn voted to fund Obamacare by agreeing to general appropriations is a political turnip; how those votes are interpreted probably depends on one’s political prism. Beyond that, the government evidently can tap the funding it needs to implement the law regardless of congressional spending decisions. Cornyn voted against the Obamacare law when it came to be and continues to oppose it.

We rate this partially accurate claim, which takes some votes out of context, as Half True.

CORRECTION, 1:13 p.m., Dec. 12, 2013: This story has been amended to reflect Cornyn’s vote against raising the debt ceiling in October 2013. This change did not affect our rating.

HALF TRUE – The statement is partially accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context.

Click here for more on the six PolitiFact ratings and how we select facts to check.

Our Sources

News story, "In surprise move, Steve Stockman challenges John Cornyn," Politico, Dec. 9, 2013

News story, "Senate passes bailout bill," Politico, Oct. 1, 2008

News story, "Cornyn weighs in on key Senate races, explains bailout vote," the Politicker, CNN, May 17, 2010

Report, "CRS Report for Congress Prepared for Members and Committees of Congress The Debt Limit: History and Recent Increases," Congressional Research Service, Oct. 15, 2013

News story, "Wonkbook: Everything you need to know about the fiscal cliff deal," Wonkblog, The Washington Post, Jan. 1, 2013

News article, "Fiscal Cliff Deal Will Raise Taxes On 77 Percent Of Americans: Tax Policy Center Analysis," the Associated Press, Jan. 2, 2013

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More by W. Gardner Selby

UPDATED: Cornyn backed Wall Street bailout and law hiking taxes for many, but he's opposed Obamacare and occasionally spurned increases in debt ceiling

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