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The viral video of Lindsey Graham silencing Senate Democrats, explained

It’s the latest instance of Republicans in the Senate basically doing whatever they want.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) questions Kelly Craft, President Trump’s nominee to be representative to the United Nations, during her nomination hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Stefani Reynolds/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

Sen. Lindsey Graham’s (R-SC) behavior during a Judiciary Committee meeting on Thursday revealed just how little Republicans care about respecting congressional rules.

The panel, which was considering a bill from Graham to reform the asylum process, kicked off in a surprising way. While calling for a committee vote on the legislation, Graham effectively silenced Democrats in his efforts to push through the bill, a move that’s quite rare, if not unheard of.

Typically, if a bill is brought up for a vote, a committee rule allows for any lawmaker that opposes it to delay consideration of that bill another week. As George Washington University’s Sarah Binder noted on Twitter, this rule does not guarantee that the bill vote will be delayed, but it’s typically been respected by committee chairs in the past.

Not only did Graham not allow Democrats to advocate for any kind of delay, he didn’t let them speak at all before advancing the bill, infuriating several of the lawmakers in the minority.

“You’re breaking the rules of the committee,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), the top Democrat on the panel. Graham, however, did not back down.

Instead, he barreled forward with a vote on the Secure and Protect Act, a bill that would require asylum seekers from Central America to apply for asylum outside the US in their home countries and Mexico. Graham’s bill would also extend the amount of time that families are kept in detention from 20 days to 100 days.

Democrats strongly disagree with several tenets of the bill. Not only did Graham not appear to care on Thursday, he did pretty much whatever he could to ignore them completely.

While Senate Republicans have the majority and can do basically whatever they want (committee rules like the one Graham ignored are only really enforced if both parties are interested in doing so), committee leadership has typically enabled lawmakers from the other side of the aisle to, at a basic level, raise their concerns.

In order to get his immigration legislation through before the Senate heads out for a roughly month-long recess, it appears Graham simply didn’t care.

His efforts are the latest in a string of actions that Senate Republicans have taken to flout norms in the upper chamber. While it’s worth noting that House Democrats have also recently run afoul of rules, in order to call President Donald Trump’s comments racist, Republican leadership in the Senate, in particular, has seen a sharp breakdown in decorum.

Graham argued that Democrats gave him no choice. That’s not true.

While Graham’s behavior made for an explosive committee meeting on Thursday, the start of all this drama can actually be traced to last week, when he brought the asylum bill up for consideration at a previous mark-up.

At the time, just one Democrat attended. Despite the fact that he did not have a quorum of minority lawmakers — two as required by Senate procedure — Graham deferred consideration of the bill. As the Committee’s rules indicate, if Graham was interested in conducting any “business” on legislation, including the deferral of a bill, he needed a quorum. Since he didn’t have one at the time, any action on the bill was technically bending the rules, Binder wrote in a tweet.

“Under Committee rules, business cannot be transacted unless there are two members present from the minority,” a Judiciary Committee press release stated, in response to the situation. “The Democrats’ refusal to attend is designed to prevent the legislation from coming to a vote in committee. Chairman Graham pledged to confront the delay, bring the bill up again next week, and force a committee vote.”

Graham stood by this decision on Thursday. “You are not going to take my job away from me. I take this very personally. I tried my best,” he said, arguing that he had tried for weeks to advance this bill.

Graham also emphasized that Democrats’ absences at the prior meeting had been intentional and designed to thwart the advancement of his legislation. At least one Democrat, former Senate Judiciary Chair Patrick Leahy said that was not the case. Leahy explained that had missed the meeting because he was attending a funeral. He also noted that several Republicans did not show up for last week’s meeting, either.

Graham was not ultimately moved by Democratic blowback. “What you’re telling me is I should ignore what you did to me last week. I will not,” Graham said.

Graham emphasized that he was still advancing the legislation with a majority vote. Eleven Republican senators voted with him to move the bill to the Senate floor. Additionally, as Binder stated, much of the adherence to these committee rules are based on a mutual agreement between lawmakers in the two parties. While Democrats have historically been able to push back the vote for a bill they disagree with by a week, for example, that’s only because Republicans have respected that norm.

Given Graham’s actions on Thursday, they appear to be done doing anything of that sort. If Graham had been willing to wait until after recess, it’s likely he could have achieved the exact same result, while abiding by existing norms. He clearly passed on that opportunity.

This move is just the latest one Republicans have employed to blow up the upper chamber’s norms

Graham’s decision to move forward with his legislation, and disregard Democratic concerns, is just the latest in a line of similar moves by Republicans, who’ve indicated little adherence to Senate norms during their time in the majority.

While some of these efforts have been particularly notable — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s decision to completely block Merrick Garland from consideration for the Supreme Court stands out — others have concerned norms that simply gave members of the minority party a say on an issue.

During Leahy’s time as judiciary chair, for example, lawmakers could use a tool known as the blue slip to indicate their disapproval of judicial nominees. If lawmakers from a nominee’s state did not return their blue slips, they blocked him or her from advancing.

Increasingly, with Republicans in power in the upper chamber, the respect for blue slips has taken a hit. In numerous instances this year when Democratic lawmakers have opposed judicial nominees tied to their home states, the candidate has been approved anyway.

Because so much of the Senate’s procedure is based on the enforcement of the party in power, the interpretation of these rules is subject to those who have the majority.

Republicans have demonstrated that when they do, they only intend to adhere to decorum when it suits them. This attitude has spurred a push among some Democrats to consider a similar approach for when they retake the Senate.