‘There’s a deal to be had’: Graham could revive immigration reform as chairman

Lindsey Graham has painstakingly developed a chummy relationship with President Donald Trump — but he may soon be the Senate’s point person on an issue that sharply divides them: immigration.

The South Carolina Republican is in line to take over the Senate Judiciary Committee next year after a potential game of musical chairs in committee leadership. And though Graham’s centrist leanings on immigration don’t jibe with Trump’s hard-line politics, his growing closeness to a president he once openly loathed may prove the best hope for reform in the Trump era.

Story Continued Below

After a 2016 campaign spent predicting that the GOP would be “destroyed” if Trump was its nominee, these days Graham has become one of the president’s loudest defenders.

That’s given Graham real cachet with Trump, even as he hasn’t shrunk from tangling with the White House on immigration and seeking out bipartisan compromise. Should the GOP keep control of the Senate next year, the deal-making senator may find himself in an unusually high-profile position to sway the president and the Republican Party.

The shift would require current Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) to swap his gavel for the Finance Committee chairmanship. And a growing number of Republican sources say it’s likely Grassley will jump, leaving Graham to preside over the powerful committee with jurisdiction on the nation’s borders.

“On immigration, there’s a deal to be had. We’ll see if we get there,” Graham said in an interview. Asked whether he’d take the Judiciary job if it fell to him, he answered: “Sure. It’d be an honor.”

Graham, who is up for reelection in 2020, faced conservative primary challengers in his previous campaign, yet still found space to hatch a major bipartisan “Gang of Eight” immigration bill. And the former Air Force lawyer with the syrupy Southern drawl has given himself room to maneuver with Trump by backing the president’s foreign policy swerves as well as tariffs that are beginning to hit the Palmetto State’s agriculture and manufacturing industries.

Graham once called Trump a “jackass” and said his party had gone “bat shit crazy” as it voted to nominate him. Graham is still out front in bucking the White House’s efforts to defrost relations with Russia, working with Democrats on a strong new sanctions proposal. But he’s largely shaken the combative approach and is now reluctant to criticize the president as he prepares to run for reelection and potentially chair one of Congress’ most powerful panels.

“I’ve approached it: ‘OK, I can live my life up here saying I don’t like this tweet, I don’t like this policy.’ Or I can say, ‘I don’t agree with this, but overall he’s doing good,’” Graham said. “One thing I’ve convinced the president is, I want him to be successful, but I still want to be me.”

Indeed, just because Graham has done something of a 180 on Trump politically doesn’t mean he’s dropped his more centrist stance on immigration. And his ascent on Judiciary would offer a marked change for the Senate GOP’s direction on the issue.

Graham has repeatedly sought compromise with liberals in search of comprehensive reform as well as smaller deals to shield young immigrants from deportation, legislation that has been trashed by Trump and most Republicans.

But GOP senators won’t fight Graham’s rise.

“He sure won’t be boring,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), who serves on the committee. “He may challenge us, our comfort zone, a little bit on some of these issues. But I think that’s OK.”

Democrats are downright giddy that they might have even a somewhat like-minded Republican at the panel’s helm rather than Grassley, who is far more in line with Trump’s restrictive immigration policies.

“If he were the chairman, I think he would dedicate himself to working hard on immigration and public safety issues. But we’ll see,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.).

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who has worked alongside Graham atop Judiciary’s crime and terrorism subcommittee, said he would be “thrilled” to see Graham take the chairmanship, describing a “particularly good working relationship” with him.

As the influential chief of Judiciary, Graham would have sway over Trump’s judicial nominees, gun legislation and special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation as well as immigration. Still, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell ultimately controls the Senate agenda, and he’s had no problem blocking Grassley-backed legislation from coming to the floor, including a Mueller protection bill and criminal justice reform — both of which Graham helped craft.

Graham made clear in the interview that he knows he needs Trump’s support to win reelection and be successful in Congress, but said Republican voters don’t want a lackey, either.

“I want him to be successful. Yes, it would help me to have a good working relationship with the president. The best thing I can do is have an honest relationship with the president. I personally like him, I think he’s doing a lot of good things. And when we disagree, we’ll just disagree,” Graham said. “Republicans are pleased with the president. But at the end of the day they expect an honest exchange.”

Grassley says he won’t decide whether to make any committee moves until after the election. Some in the GOP are betting on the Iowan to reclaim his past spot at the helm of the tax-writing Finance panel, leaving Graham to slide over to Judiciary.

“Chuck loves the Finance Committee issues, the tax stuff; he’s been there before. It’d be a hard choice,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.). “If I were a betting man, it’d be Grassley to Finance. But it’s not my decision.”

A Graham chairmanship may not be good news for the ultraconservative Trump policy adviser whom the senator derided as an “outlier” on immigration during last winter’s heated negotiations on Dreamers. “As long as Stephen Miller is in charge of negotiating immigration, we are going nowhere,” Graham said then.

Another fellow Republican with whom Graham has scrapped, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, professed himself ambivalent about the move, though he acknowledged they disagree on “a lot.”

“I don’t think I have a say in who becomes chairman and who doesn’t,” said the libertarian-leaning Paul, who has clashed with the hawkish Graham.

As Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) put it: If Graham ends up chairman, it would mean Republicans have kept the Senate this fall and the party wouldn’t shift much further left on immigration.

And ultimately, Democrats would prefer to strike an immigration deal with Trump in a far different position — with themselves in the majority next year.

Asked about Graham’s potential Judiciary chairmanship, Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) quipped that “if he wants, after the election, to be the ranking Republican, I think that’s a great idea.”

Source link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *