WASHINGTON — Sen. John Cornyn got a preview of the bruising campaign he may face next fall after casting votes before summer recess against a children’s health insurance spending bill and ethics and lobbying reform legislation.

Democrat Mikal Watts, a San Antonio attorney who hopes to challenge Cornyn, and the Democratic Party quickly latched onto the votes.

Watts called Cornyn’s vote against the children’s health insurance program hypocritical, since the senator gets government-subsidized health care. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee accused Cornyn of siding with a “tiny fringe” in voting against the ethics and lobbying bill.

It’s clear Democrats smell opportunity and are eager to get their political talons into one of the state’s U.S. Senate seats. But Texas Democrats haven’t won a statewide elected office in Texas since 1998.

“The resurgence of Democrats in Texas is not dependent on winning this Senate race, but winning it will give it a huge boost,” said Matt Angle, director of the Lone Star Project, formed to try to rebuild the Democratic Party in Texas.

Bob Krueger was the last Texas Democrat in the U.S. Senate and he was appointed to replace Democrat Lloyd Bentsen when Bentsen became treasury secretary. Krueger lost the seat in a 1993 special election to Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison.

But Republican consultant Royal Masset said he considers Cornyn safe.

“The senator is in a state that is already pretty solidly Republican, there’s really no chance of a challenger beating him. He’s got to make a fundamental error for any challenger to have a shot and their challengers are not heavyweights. They are not first string challengers,” Masset said.

State Rep. Rick Noriega, D-Houston, and Dallas attorney Emil Reichstadt also are bidding for the chance to take on Cornyn.

Before leaving for summer recess, the Senate voted 68-31 to increase spending on the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, or CHIP, by $35 billion over five years. The spending increase will be paid for with a 61-cent tax increase on tobacco products.

President Bush has threatened to veto the bill because of its cost.

Cornyn defended his vote as a rejection of government takeover of health care and against state’s increased use of the program to cover adults and families with incomes above 200 percent of poverty level, or $41,300 for a family of four.

He backed a bill sponsored by Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky that increased spending by $10 billion over five years. Cornyn said it allowed Texas to keep money it failed to spend this year.

“I don’t believe the majority of Americans want a single-payer, Washington-controlled system,” he said.

Watts asserted after the vote that Cornyn’s position was connected to contributions the senator received from insurance and prescription drug companies. He said Cornyn should give up his taxpayer-funded health care benefits until all Texans have access to high-quality, low-cost health care.

“Everyone knows our health care system is broken, and everyone knows why,” Watts said. “Costs have risen higher than wages, and middle-class families can’t afford to buy policies from big insurance when the average premium is about $12,000 a year for a family of four.”

On the ethics bill, Cornyn joined 13 other senators who voted against the bill.

Cornyn had voted for the Senate ethics and lobbying reform bill passed early this year. But he complained the final bill fell short on earmark reform.

The approved bill requires lawmakers to publicize plans to seek earmarks 48 hours before a vote and certify they have no direct financial interest in the funding they seek.

But the bill also allows the majority leader and Appropriations Committee chairman to certify that legislation meets the rule without earmarks being disclosed to the public, Cornyn said.

“The principle we are standing for here today makes it clear I am on the side of reforming the system, not the status quo,” Cornyn said at a news conference.

“John Cornyn had a chance to show leadership on a bipartisan issue today, but instead he sided with a tiny fringe that opposes ethics and lobbying reform,” said Matthew Miller, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman.

Cornyn dismissed his critics on ethics, pointing to an open government bill he has pushed for years. The Senate passed it just before the summer break.

The bill sets time limits on agencies for responding to Freedom of Information Act requests and requires agencies to provide tracking numbers and status updates for requests, among other things. The House has not considered the bill.

“I just always wondered why conservatives weren’t more at the vanguard of this fight (for open government) because it is to me the most conservative of all principles and that is the people have the right to know and the legitimacy of government flows from their consent,” Cornyn said.

The Children’s Health Insurance Program Reauthorization Act of 2007 is H.R. 967.

The ethics and lobbying reform bill is S.1.

On the Net: http://thomas.loc.gov