Senator Graham steps out of Senator McCain’s shadow right into his shoes

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey GrahamBipartisan gun measure survives test vote Senate Republicans may defy NRA on guns Hacked computer network mysteriously back online MORE, a longtime friend and ally of Sen. John McCainJohn McCainReport: Prominent neoconservative to fundraise for Clinton McConnell quashes Senate effort on guns No reason why women shouldn't be drafted MORE, is now going a step further, Democrats say, and actually becoming the new McCain.

Senior members of the majority party say the South Carolina Republican has displaced his Arizona mentor as the dealmaker on two big agenda items of the Obama administration: climate change and immigration.

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As McCain, on the heels of his presidential election defeat, has distanced himself from Democrats, Graham has moved in to fill the vacuum.

And Graham’s decision to pick up the mantle of the maverick has been noticed and not always appreciated by conservative Republicans. Hecklers at a town hall meeting in Greenville, S.C., on Monday night accused their senator of abandoning conservative principles, to which he replied that he loved the GOP too much to let it become “the party of angry white guys.”

Sen. John KerryJohn KerryDozens of Clinton meetings left off State schedule: report Overnight Cybersecurity: Sit-in disrupts cyber hearings | Trump tries to defend claim Clinton was hacked Kerry backs government access to encrypted data MORE (Mass.), one of the chief Democratic sponsors of climate change legislation, has invited Graham to be his principal Republican partner on the issue.

Sen. Charles SchumerCharles SchumerThis week: Senate showdown over gun control Dems push vulnerable GOP senators on gun control Senate schedules Monday votes on gun control MORE (N.Y.), vice chairman of the Senate Democratic Conference, is in talks with Graham about teaming up to pass major immigration reform.

“I’m trying to use my time up here to solve problems,” Graham told The Hill. “The Republican Party needs to be seen as a center-right party that will solve hard problems.

“We have an energy independence problem and I think the planet’s got a [climate] problem. So I’d like to be a Republican who can bring good business practices to solving this problem.

“If the administration wants to embrace immigration reform, I will try to be helpful.”

Graham stunned Republicans in Washington and South Carolina by agreeing to team up with Kerry to pass climate change legislation this Congress.

In a New York Times op-ed titled “Yes We Can (Pass Climate Change Legislation),” Kerry and Graham wrote: “Our partnership represents a fresh attempt to find consensus that adheres to our core principles and leads to both a climate change solution and energy independence.”

McCain has sounded more pessimistic about Kerry’s bill, unveiled two weeks ago with Sen. Barbara BoxerBarbara BoxerSenate honors Cleveland Cavs' NBA championship California’s last nuclear plant slated to close Senate rejects gun control background check measures MORE (D-Calif.). He had “huge problems” with it, he told The Hill, and has decided to work instead with Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.).

Schumer said he is even discussing immigration with Graham, even though McCain led efforts to pass immigration legislation with the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.).

“Sen. Graham is the guy,” Schumer said  bluntly.

Democrats thought McCain would serve as the chief Republican dealmaker on climate and immigration. President Barack ObamaBarack ObamaOur most toxic export: American politick State Dept. insists Brexit won't hurt relations with UK, EU WATCH LIVE: Obama speaks at roundtable with Zuckerberg MORE reached out to him soon after defeating him in the 2008 election, inviting him in November to his Chicago transition office.

But McCain soon positioned himself as an outspoken critic of Obama’s policies. He led Senate GOP opposition to Obama’s $787 billion economic stimulus package, which attracted only three Republican votes.

He was also a leading critic of Democratic healthcare legislation in the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee. He blasted the markup as “a waste of time.”

Graham has positioned himself as a McCain-style maverick willing to negotiate with Democrats on major legislation, just as McCain joined Democrats to pass campaign finance reform in 2002.

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“That’s a role that Lindsey’s comfortable with,” said Sen. John ThuneJohn ThuneRepublicans question Trump's trip to Scotland Short-term FAA bill would likely extend into next year, GOP chairman says Civil liberties group mobilizes against surveillance amendment MORE (R-S.D.). “He wants to be engaged in solving problems, which I think is a good attribute around here. That’s where Sen. McCain came from too. He’s a guy who wanted to get results and had a considerable amount of success doing that.”

But Thune and other Republicans doubt that Graham can strike a deal with Kerry on climate change that would attract other members of their conference.

“He’s got a real uphill climb on climate change…but I don’t fault him for trying to move that bill to the middle,” said Thune.

Graham has played bipartisan mediator in past Senate battles. In 2005, he was a member of the Gang of 14 that brokered a deal to avert the “nuclear option” over stalled judicial nominees. Last year, he was in the Gang of 10 (five Democrats and five Republicans) that floated a compromise proposal on energy.

Conservatives have grumbled about Graham joining Kerry, whom they panned as a liberal elitist in the 2004 presidential campaign.

Some Republicans say Democrats seldom compromised when the GOP controlled Congress and the White House a few years ago.

“There’s a lot of frustration across the board; we get used by Democrats but they never return the favor,” said Warren Tompkins, a Republican consultant in South Carolina who worked on Graham’s Senate campaigns.

Tompkins said Graham’s partnership with Kerry is not playing “well at all” in South Carolina.

“I hope he’s aware that it’s a very slippery slope,” said Tompkins, who added that Democrats do not vote in Republican Senate primaries.

“Sen. Graham is smart and I got to have faith that he knows what he’s doing, but it’s caused quite a stir.”

Graham appears to have grown tired of critics of the type who disrupted congressional town hall meetings this summer and who reject bipartisanship.

At a town hall meeting in Greenville on Monday, Graham told constituents who waved anti-government signs and jeered in protest of his climate stance to “chill out.”

McCain called Graham a “close friend” but not under his sway: “He thinks for himself,” said McCain.

McCain noted that “I see bipartisan agreements all the time,” cautioning against drawing sweeping conclusions from Graham’s partnership with Kerry.