Right now, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina looks like the only lawmaker in Congress trying to make a deal that would reopen the federal government.
In the Senate Friday night, in a desperate but ultimately failed attempt to avert a government shutdown, Graham was the main character. He had started the evening shuttling between Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, eating a little dinner with each — the Republican leader had pepperoni pizza, Schumer had chicken, Graham told reporters.
On the Senate floor, with a procedural vote on the House Republican spending bill short on support as expected, Graham was in the middle of a throng of 13 Republican and Democratic senators trying to cut a deal. As the clock neared midnight, Graham was surrounded by the better part of the Democratic caucus, making an impassioned plea to Schumer to prevent the shutdown.
He failed, of course. Senate Republicans and Democrats were reportedly coalescing around a deal to fund the government for three weeks — instead of the House plan’s four — and set up floor movement on immigration legislation to fix the issue of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which is the source of Democratic frustration and the minority’s willingness to shut down the government. It came up short, reportedly because House conservatives were unwilling to take up the plan that Graham had been negotiating with Democrats.
But on Saturday morning, Graham was still at it. He is pushing the proposal to fund the government through February 8 — a bill that McConnell is setting up a vote on — alongside a handshake deal for an open immigration debate before then.
“After my discussions with numerous senators on both sides of the last night it is clear to me a commitment to move to immigration after February 8th is the key to ending the government shutdown and finding resolution on all the outstanding issues,” he said in a statement.
But Graham has one very big problem that might prevent him from the breakthrough he’s working so hard to find.
Graham seems like the only person with a plan to open the government
Democrats and Republicans have been at an impasse for a week. Democrats, spooked by President Trump’s reversal on an emerging immigration deal in the infamous White House “shithole” meeting and desperate for a DACA fix, are withholding their votes to keep the government open to try to force the issue. Republicans are trying to blame the minority for holding the government hostage over an unrelated issue. They have dangled a reauthorization of the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which Congress had ignored for months, to put a further squeeze on Democrats.
Graham is at the center of this fight in part because of his work on immigration. He negotiated the contours of an agreement with Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin, which Trump rejected at the “shithole” meeting, setting the stage for the current shutdown.
Republican and Democratic leaders started digging in days ago, ready to lay the blame for the shutdown with the other party. Republicans say they have put forward a spending bill — four weeks of funding plus CHIP — that the Democrats don’t actually oppose.
But Democrats are frustrated with Trump’s waffling on DACA, exacerbated by the immigration hardliners in the House and Senate who seem unwilling to cut a deal that would be acceptable to the minority. They feel the shutdown is their only leverage and that putting the issue off until February 16 is too late.
Graham, for the time being, seems like the only lawmaker with a plan that could possibly crack this standoff. He proposed Friday night, and reiterated again Saturday, a shorter funding bill — to February 8 instead of 16 — and an agreement that Congress would have an immigration floor debate with an open amendment process by February 8.
McConnell has motioned to take up the three-week spending bill, perhaps as soon as Sunday, and Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), who was working the floor alongside Graham, told reporters early Saturday morning that the Republican leader had agreed to move an immigration bill even without the White House’s approval.
Whether that is amenable to House Republicans, the White House, and Senate Democrats remains unclear. But nobody else seems to have a plan that would actually end the current shutdown.
Graham might be the only person with the ear of the big players — with one crucial exception
For now, the South Carolina senator appears to be the only person with clout among the various factions trying to negotiate a deal to end the shutdown — with one very important exception: the immigration hardliners who could kill a deal in the House.
Graham is well liked, for the most part, among his Senate Republican colleagues. He also has the respect of many Senate Democrats. At various points on Friday night, he was leading a 13-senator meeting in a corner of the Senate floor; he (with Flake) was working through the problem with McConnell; and then at the climax, there he was in the middle of the entire Democratic caucus — or most of it, anyway.
He has also taken great pains to maintain a working relationship with Trump. The pair developed a solid rapport during the Obamacare repeal debate, with the senator becoming a regular fixture on the golf course with Trump. Graham, after he delivered some of the most stinging Republican critiques of the president during the campaign, had become one of his biggest fans in the Senate.
The “shithole” meeting put a clear strain on those relations, but even there, Graham worked tactfully to keep an open line with Trump. He declined to directly confirm the president’s racist remarks — though his colleague from South Carolina, Sen. Tim Scott, did while citing Graham.
It was a transparent move by Graham to keep in Trump’s good graces. He has made a point to direct more of the blame to the president’s advisers than to Trump himself.
“I want to make sure that I can keep talking to the president,” Graham said on CNN this week. “I told him what I thought, and that’s more important to me than anything else.”
But the intractable problem for Graham is this: The shutdown standoff is a fight over immigration, where he is a dove and crucial Republicans — particularly Trump and the House’s conservatives — are hawks.
He might be, for all his maneuvering over the past few days, simply too poisonous among a few of his Senate colleagues with a direct line to the president and, more importantly, the bulk of House conservatives who would likely reject an immigration deal that Graham signed off on.
“We had an election in 2016. Immigration was a major issue there. The American people, and especially Republican primary voters, made it clear that they wanted Donald Trump’s vision of immigration policy, not Lindsey Graham’s,” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR), one of those hawks close to Trump who helped bring down the Graham-Durbin immigration proposal, told reporters Friday.
He added of Graham’s brief and failed presidential run in 2016: “He didn’t make it to the starting line. He didn’t even make it off the kiddie table in the debates.”
The truth is, Cotton’s views on immigration are more prevalent among House Republicans than Graham’s are. House Speaker Paul Ryan won the support of the archconservative House Freedom Caucus for the spending bill to avert an embarrassing defeat in the House in part by promising movement on a hardline immigration plan.
So while Graham might have sway with Senate Republicans, Senate Democrats, and maybe even the White House, he has a huge House Republican problem — and he has people like Cotton battling for Trump’s attention on immigration.
“No one will own any deal without the White House owning it. Ryan loses 150 of his guys on a Lindsey Graham deal,” one GOP lobbyist told me.
Graham is fond of saying Congress is inside the 10-yard line for a solution to these divisive issues. But while he’s working overtime to call the right play and to put the proverbial ball in the end zone, Republican hardliners are standing in his way.