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Sen. Lindsey Graham: Spotlight On A Deal Maker

Lindsey Graham briefed then-President-elect Obama in January 2009 about a trip the senator took to the Middle East.
Alex Wong
Getty Images
Lindsey Graham briefed then-President-elect Obama in January 2009 about a trip the senator took to the Middle East.

In the past year, political controversies as diverse as climate change, immigration, Guantanamo and Supreme Court nominations have had one thing in common: Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina has broken ranks with his party to collaborate with Democrats.

A few years ago, there were Senate Republicans who regularly worked with Democrats on major legislation. Pennsylvania's Arlen Specter, Virginia's John Warner and Arizona's John McCain each had a reputation as an aisle-crosser. But Specter became a Democrat, Warner retired and McCain moved to the right on many issues to defend himself against a conservative primary challenger. Today, on one subject after another, the Senate's foremost Republican deal maker is Lindsey Graham.

"There's a middle ground, and I'd like to find that middle ground," Graham said in a recent NPR interview about closing Guantanamo.


White House counsel Bob Bauer has made regular trips to Capitol Hill to meet with Graham over the past few months to work on a deal that would allow the administration to buy a federal prison in Illinois for Guantanamo detainees. The agreement would establish a larger role for military commissions and scrap Attorney General Eric Holder's plan to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the accused mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, in civilian court.

Working The Middle

Graham occupies "a difficult role because many times your own party does not want you to participate in those endeavors," says retired Sen. John Breaux.

Breaux was a Senate Democrat from Louisiana until his 2005 retirement. He often worked with Republicans, to the occasional consternation of his fellow Democrats. "To Lindsey's credit, he said, 'I want to get things done,' and if you're in the minority, you're going to have to work with the majority or nothing will ever get done," says Breaux.

Graham has partnered with some of the most prominent liberals in the Senate, including New York's Chuck Schumer on an immigration bill and John Kerry of Massachusetts on a cap-and-trade proposal to fight climate change.


Republican strategist Charlie Black believes these alliances can be useful to Graham in the future if Democrats lose their large Senate majority. "When you have closer margins in the Senate and everybody realizes a lot of bipartisan work has to get done, he'll be there front and center with some experience at it," says Black.

A few other Republican senators have made tentative steps across the aisle in the past year, including Ohio's George Voinovich and the two senators from Maine, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins. But "it's much more difficult to reach out to Democrats being from South Carolina than it is being from the state of Maine," says Breaux. "When Lindsey steps out, he does it at some degree of political risk to himself. If he was only looking at the politics back home in South Carolina, he wouldn't be doing this."

Indeed, local Republican parties in some South Carolina counties have censured Graham. Among other complaints, some of his constituents were angry that Graham voted to confirm President Obama's first Supreme Court nominee. Graham was the only Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee to support Sonia Sotomayor. He described her at the time as "one of the most qualified nominees to be selected for the Supreme Court in decades."

A Delicate Balance

Graham is hardly a moderate, though. The American Conservative Union gives him a 90 percent lifetime approval rating. Some liberal activists fear that he is pulling Democrats off-course.

"It's tempting to say that if we can just draw in one person with an R next to their name, the White House can say it's acting in a way that's bipartisan," said Elisa Massimino, CEO of Human Rights First.

Massimino believes there is a right way and a wrong way to close Guantanamo prison. She sees Graham's plan, with its emphasis on military trials and indefinite detention, as the wrong way.

"That's not principled pragmatism. That's getting it off the table at whatever cost," said Massimino.

The White House must weigh the risk of losing support from Democrats against the benefit of gaining support from Graham.

"I want to make sure that we have a system in place that is true to American principles and meets international accountability," says Democratic Sen. Benjamin Cardin of Maryland, who serves as chairman of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee charged with overseeing the closure of Guantanamo prison. "I don't believe we can compromise those principles."

As to whether Graham's proposal would be an unacceptable compromise on those principles, Cardin said he is reserving judgment.

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