Sen. Lindsey Graham wants to be Congress’ lead negotiator on overhauling the nation’s immigration system, but the South Carolina Republican is facing potentially insurmountable challenges.
What would ordinarily give him stature as a valuable dealmaker — his history of compromising with Democrats and his close relationship with President Donald Trump — could end up being liabilities.
Trump was elected for promising to limit legal immigration, and for taking a strident tone on who should be allowed to enter the country. Reports that the president this week questioned the value of admitting immigrants from “shithole countries” into the United States underscored that notion.
Graham has until this point enjoyed probably a better relationship with Trump than most of his colleagues, with a direct line to the Oval Office and frequent golfing invitations.
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He might, though, have weakened his bargaining position with a leader who doesn’t like to be called out. Graham was at the meeting when Trump made his incendiary comments, and did not deny reports Friday that he personally challenged Trump for making the remarks.
But Graham’s vulnerabilities as an immigration power broker have deeper roots.
“Look, we had an election in 2016. Two members of the ‘Gang of Eight’ ran for president,” said Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark. “The American people didn’t want (their) style of immigration reform … Donald Trump won.”
The “Gang of Eight” was the group of Republican and Democratic lawmakers who crafted the path-to-citizenship bill that passed the Senate in 2013 but went nowhere in the House. The two members of that group who ran for president were Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who is not involved in immigration negotiations at this time, and Graham.
Cotton’s remarks struck at the heart of a stark truth: Conservative hardliners are still wary of dealmaking Republicans such as Graham having even a seat in negotiations.
“Opposition to the Gang of Eight style amnesty was a cornerstone of President Trump’s campaign, but Sen. Graham and his 2013 counterparts clearly didn’t get the memo,” said RJ Hauman, government relations director for the conservative Federation for American Immigration Reform. “It is clear that Sen. Graham isn’t at the table in good faith.”
Hardliners aren’t the only skeptics.
Rep. Carlos Curbelo of Florida, a second-term Republican who has been pushing for an immigration deal that includes a pathway to citizenship, told McClatchy while Graham was a valuable negotiator, he could see where lawmakers with less political baggage might be critical to success.
"The modern history of immigration reform in Congress is a history of failure," Curbelo explained. "It would be helpful to have new voices and new faces. It doesn't mean those with scars from past battles are not needed, but new protagonists are necessary."
On paper, it would appear Graham has all the necessary credentials to lead tense talks to reach a deal to codify the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, President Barack Obama’s 2012 executive action that currently grants stays from deportation for roughly 800,000 immigrants brought illegally into the country by their parents as young children. Trump has said he would end the program in March unless Congress keeps it alive and agrees to enact tougher border security measures as a condition.
Graham has worked on the issue for years and knows the political consequences. He still endures taunts with the nickname “Lindsey Grahmnesty” that many pundits predicted would cost him his 2014 Republican primary election. It didn’t.
And for years, he’s built a reputation as a conservative with an appetite for reaching across the aisle and making compromises.
“He is a relentless, indefatigable dealmaker,” said Frank Sharry, director of the immigration rights group America’s Voice, who has worked with Graham closely on the issue. “He’s like a dog with a bone.”
In a brief interview with McClatchy, as lawmakers were on the cusp of reaching a deal, Graham was candid about his contributions.
“The one thing I bring to the table is I’ve been working on this for 12 years,” Graham said. “I know the topic pretty well, substantively. Politically, I understand the landmines. I understand that now is the moment.”
Graham is correct that 2018 would appear to be the year for action on some comprehensive immigration overhaul effort. Unlike five years ago, Republicans now control Congress and the White House, creating a chance to bridge even the fiercest ideological divides within the GOP.
Graham and Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois presented an agreement to Trump and fellow lawmakers on Thursday at the White House, where the president made his inflammatory remarks. The proposal included a pathway to citizenship and enforcement provisions, but hardliners such as Cotton called the deal “a joke,” and Trump told negotiators to come up with something else.
Several aides to House GOP lawmakers said Graham could end up hurting the cause.
One senior House aide to a Republican aligned with Graham on immigration issues said a classic mistake was at play: “You can’t do a Senate-first strategy on this issue without including the House.”
Conservatives in both chambers like a new bill introduced this week by House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., but that measure is far narrower than many Republicans would like and would get few if any Democratic votes.
Ultimately, Sharry said the ability to get a deal rests on Graham’s shoulders, like him or not.
“If there’s a deal to be had,” said Sharry, “Lindsey Graham is going to be the one who comes the closest to it.”
Lesley Clark of the McClatchy Washington bureau contributed.