Lindsey Graham: The Senate’s Republican Deal Maker on Immigration


Lindsey Graham on an immigration-reform breakthrough and battling against the ‘isolationist movement’ in the GOP.

Pick almost any recent big story out of Washington. The secret phone and email surveillance. The proposal to give 11 million illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship. President Obama’s drone “kill list,” or American weapons for Syria’s rebels.

On these and other issues, Lindsey Graham is at odds with prevailing—in his preferred description, merely louder—opinion in the GOP. He is also one of his party’s leading legislators. The South Carolinian is spearheading the immigration-reform push in the Senate, even as he fights to protect a Democratic president’s war powers.

Mr. Graham also faces re-election next year, and something may have to give. “If I lose, I lose,” he says, invoking one of his trademark sayings: “I don’t want to stop being a senator to be senator.” But Mr. Graham, a practiced politician, says the assumptions about the GOP’s mood and future direction are wrong. He says defense and immigration are a winner for him, even with South Carolina primary voters, as well as for the Republican Party.

That proposition is going to be tested. The immigration-reform bill is headed for Senate passage, likely next week, and a rough debate in the House in the fall. Mr. Graham was one of the four Republicans and four Democrats—the Gang of Eight—who came together in January to work out a comprehensive package. “With immigration, we know what we need to do,” he says. “We’re just afraid to do it, because people on the right and the left sometimes yell about things like this.”

Negotiations teetered and stalled at times, but the final outlines are in place. The bill expands the number of legal ways to get into the U.S. and offers the millions of illegal immigrants already here a way to get a work permit and eventually a U.S. passport. As of lunchtime on Thursday, Mr. Graham says, “I’ve never felt better about immigration reform.”

Earlier in the day, a piece of the puzzle fell into place. The Group of Eight had a deal on border security, the last big outstanding item. Senate Republicans pushed changes to stop anyone from getting a new green card before the frontier was “certifiably” secured. The amendments failed, but the unresolved issue hurt chances of gaining more than a handful of GOP votes for the package.

New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, who is navigating this effort for the Democrats, wants broader Republican support in the Senate to improve its chances in the House. Mr. Graham says many Republicans use border security as “a cover for not wanting to admit they’re against a pathway to citizenship.” When the Congressional Budget Office this week said the bill would reduce the deficit by $197 billion over the next decade, he and Mr. Schumer saw an opening to “go big, think big,” according to Mr. Graham. On Wednesday, they negotiated with Republicans Bob Corker of Tennessee and North Dakota’s John Hoeven, who proposed a “border surge.”

Before the details were unveiled Thursday afternoon, Mr. Schumer reaches the South Carolinian by cellphone at his office in the Russell Senate Office Building to get “the story straight,” as Mr. Graham later puts it. I hear Mr. Graham’s half of the conversation. “Here was the breakthrough, Chuck, going big on the border,” he says. “I’ve always been thinking there will come a point when we want to just overwhelm the critics on the border and we found that opportunity. . . . You’re a good man. Bye.”

The border-patrol force will be doubled to 40,000, adding the equivalent of “three combat brigades,” says Mr. Graham, a reservist in the Air Force. The number of unmanned drones will be tripled. The whole security package, under $5 billion in the original bill, quadrupled. All of it will have to be in place before the first green card gets issued. The CBO’s rosy estimates enabled this expensive vote-buying exercise.

The sticker shock could yet cause a different problem with Republicans, but Mr. Graham says he’s confident it’ll secure 16 to 20 GOP votes for the bill. Several fence-sitters jumped in support on Thursday. “Basically the Democrats have called our bluff,” he says. “When it comes to the southern border, I don’t know what more to do, short of just shooting people.” The bill also expands the number of visas for engineers and farm hands, although not enough to satisfy business groups and agricultural producers. But organized labor and Democrats, who helped sink the last reform push six years ago, are on board with the compromise.

Mr. Graham and John McCain, his closest friend in the Senate, took part in the stillborn effort of 2007. “What I’m not going to let happen this time is let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” Mr. Graham says. “Those are your choices: Status quo or the Gang of Eight bill.”

The path through the House will be trickier. A majority of Republicans oppose any possibility of citizenship for illegals. Mr. Graham predicts that the House will pass a bill along the Senate lines, only without that citizenship provision. President Obama won’t sign any measure without it, setting the stage for hard bargaining in the fall.

The depth of the opposition to immigration reform on the right seems tempered by last year’s electoral debacle. See Mitt Romney’s “self-deportation” comments and his 27% vote among Hispanics, down from 44% for George W. Bush. “The biggest change in politics is there’s a smaller percentage of Republicans who don’t want to acknowledge any legal status and drive [illegal immigrants] out. The new place for Republicans is legal status but not citizenship, because”—as Texas’ Sen. Ted Cruz and others say—”that’s not fair” to immigrants who came here legally.

Mr. Schumer, who wants to be the next Senate majority leader, had worked on the 2007 push under his mentor and legendary deal maker, the late Ted Kennedy. “I called Schumer and said ‘Let’s get the band back together,’ ” says Mr. Graham. The Republican invokes the economic and moral arguments for immigration but emphasizes the political one. If the GOP brand with minorities doesn’t improve, the party won’t get out of an “electoral death spiral.” “After the 2012 election,” he says, “my worst fears were being realized.”

Of the sponsors, only Mr. Graham faces an imminent election. He says Mr. McCain was worried the reform push would invite a primary challenge, but “I said, ‘Listen, name a time better than now.'” He cites polls that most voters are with him. “The bottom line is [that] from a political point of view, it’s been hurtful to me overall. But I think I’ve turned a corner, because the people I’ve lost, I’ve lost,” he says. A fifth of Republican primary voters oppose the legal pathway to citizenship.

“Schumer’s been incredible,” Mr. Graham says. “He’s a worthy successor to Ted Kennedy, and that’s saying a lot.” Marco Rubio, who joined the Gang of Eight in January, “has been a game-changer who’s been terrific on our side.” Dick Durbin, Mr. Graham says, is “tough but practical, always fighting for [organized] labor’s interest.”

The compliments are offered with Mr. Graham’s Southern twang and underscore a political point, too. You have to work with the other side to get things done in Congress. You may have to be willing to anger your partisan allies. Mr. Graham has succeeded on both counts.

The fight over immigration speaks to the emerging fault line within the Republican Party. Though only 57, Mr. Graham is an elder statesman for the internationalist tradition in the Senate: Open borders for people and goods (except from China, which the senator likes to bash) and an America engaged deeply in the world, militarily if need be. On the other side are Young Turks like Kentucky’s Rand Paul and Mr. Cruz, freshman senators who oppose foreign entanglements, drones, phone surveillance and immigration—the “isolationist movement in the party,” Mr. Graham says.

When Rand Paul took his star turn on the Senate floor in March by filibustering against the president’s war authority and said America was not a terrorist battlefield, Mr. Graham and Mr. McCain invoked the battlefields of 9/11. The tea party has joined with Democrats to try to deny the president the power to put American citizens who join al Qaeda in military custody. The next fights will likely be over efforts to strengthen judicial oversight of drones and kill theNational Security Agency’s data-mining. Many Republicans are likely to join them.

For as much attention as Mr. Paul has received, his broader appeal has yet to be tested. Wait for the 2016 presidential primaries. Mr. Graham, who relishes a good argument, insists that the internationalists aren’t in retreat. “Rand Paul, I like him a lot,” he says, before sticking the knife in: “He’s to the left of Obama on a lot of these issues. I don’t see the Republican Party has changed on national security, because loud doesn’t mean a lot. Rand Paul is a libertarian. He is consistent. He inherits the torch from his dad [former Congressman Ron Paul], and I respect that.”

Distrust of President Obama has led the right to strange places. To Mr. Graham, the targeting of conservative groups by the IRS is “chilling.” He calls the administration “disgraceful and dishonest” about Benghazi. “This win-at-all-costs attitude has come back to haunt them,” he says. “But they’re right about the NSA program.”

Like drones, he says, data-mining is one of many tools approved by the courts and Congress to protect Americans from terrorists. “When I defend it, my critics say, ‘There, you’re helping Obama.’ No, I’m defending America. I don’t want to get so partisan and so jaded when it comes to national security I can’t help the commander in chief when I know I should.”

The isolationist mood in the GOP “has to be contained and pushed back against,” he says. “You know why I’m not worried about it? Because after the Boston bombing everybody was tripping over themselves to get to the right of me. A lot of this is headline-driven.”

In the rising generation of GOP politicians, he sees in Mr. Rubio, New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte and Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan successors to Ronald Reagan’s “peace through strength model” of politics.

Along with Mr. McCain, he continues to call for the U.S. to impose a no-fly zone in Syria and to move beyond President Obama’s decision last week to supply small arms to the rebels. Yet some Republicans joined with the antiwar left to oppose any involvement in Syria. Mr. Graham brushes it off.”Every major period of turmoil, there have been voices, ‘Leave those people alone.’ And they have been eventually drowned out by voices that we are America, we have to do the right thing, we have to lead.”

Looking beyond immigration, Mr. Graham sees a showdown over a congressional attack on the NSA program. “I think it’ll go down in flames, and I’m gonna try to prove to you that criticism doesn’t represent a change in Republican Party politics. It’s loud and it’ll sometimes be a threat. But in the 2016, 2014 [election cycles] . . . all of that won’t sell. And if it does sell, I’ll be a man without a party.”

Mr. Kaminski is a member of the Journal’s editorial board of the WSJ.

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