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Graham threat to bust panel rules roils Senate tensions

Tensions are boiling over in the Senate over Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamBarr taps attorney investigating Russia probe origins as special counsel Democracy is the MVP in 2020 The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Mastercard - GOP angst in Georgia; confirmation fight looms MORE’s (R-S.C.) threat to ram through legislation to overhaul U.S. asylum laws, including changing the number of days minors crossing the border can be held in custody. 

The fight is the latest high-profile battle on the Senate Judiciary Committee, where Graham says he’s ready to waive panel rules to force a committee vote Thursday on his legislation.

Graham’s bill touches on the detentions of families who cross the border, as well as their possible separations, one of the most sensitive issues in politics right now. 

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It would increase the number of days a family can be held together from 20 days to 100 days, preventing family separations but lengthening the period children could be held in custody with their parents. 

It would also require asylum claims be filed in Mexico or a home country instead of the United States, provide funding for 500 new immigration judges and allow unaccompanied minors from Central America to be sent back to their home countries, similar to unaccompanied minors from Canada or Mexico.

Graham’s threat to forego rules that require at least two members of the minority party to be present to vote on legislation and speed up consideration of the bill has sparked fierce pushback from Democrats, who believe Republicans have nixed Senate rules when it benefits them politically. 

Sen. Dick DurbinDick DurbinCriminal justice groups offer support for Durbin amid fight for Judiciary spot The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Mastercard - GOP angst in Georgia; confirmation fight looms Overnight Health Care: Moderna to apply for emergency use authorization for COVID-19 vaccine candidate | Hospitals brace for COVID-19 surge | US more than doubles highest number of monthly COVID-19 cases MORE (Ill.), the No. 2 Democrat and a member of the committee, warned it could have far reaching implications for how the committee operates going forward. 

“It’s a dramatic departure from the way the committee has been managed in the past. It has been a very bipartisan committee with few exceptions and to force through a controversial measure on immigration in this manner doesn’t help us on the agenda we face,” Durbin told The Hill. 

But Republicans say Democrats are forcing Graham’s hand by essentially boycotting committee work to stop his legislation.

Sen. John CornynJohn CornynMcCaskill: 'Hypocrisy' for GOP to target Biden nominee's tweets after Trump Former Senate hopeful auctioning off Harley-Davidson featured prominently in her campaign ads The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Mastercard - GOP angst in Georgia; confirmation fight looms MORE (R-Texas) argued that Graham didn’t have a choice if Democrats aren’t “going to participate.” 

“I think this has all just been a big waiting game and obviously the conditions along the border are not getting any better,” he said. 

He added that if Democrats weren’t going to work with them on asylum legislation, “then I think they need to be held accountable somehow.” 

Every Senate Judiciary Committee Democrat except for ranking member Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinCriminal justice groups offer support for Durbin amid fight for Judiciary spot Bottom line Incoming Congress looks more like America MORE (D-Calif.) skipped a committee meeting scheduled for last Thursday, when Graham’s bill was on the agenda. 

“I've been informed by my Democratic colleagues that Sen. Feinstein will be the only Democrat here. Under our rules we're not supposed to do business unless we get seven from the majority and two from the minority," Graham said during the meeting. 

Graham then warned that he would change the panel’s rules the following week to ensure his legislation was considered.

“So what we'll do is we'll take this up Thursday, next week, I will make a motion to change the rules ... and we're going to vote,” he said. 

Democrats are outraged over the threat.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said he was “concerned about changing the rules to achieve a favored outcome.” 

Sen. Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseCriminal justice groups offer support for Durbin amid fight for Judiciary spot The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC - COVID-19 fears surround Thanksgiving holiday Feinstein departure from top post sets stage for Judiciary fight MORE (D-R.I.), another member of the panel, called Graham’s threat a “terrible idea.” 

But GOP senators appear ready to support their chairman.

Sen. John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE (R-La.) said he would back waiving the committee’s rules if Democrats skip the Judiciary Committee meeting on Thursday. 

“Our Democratic colleagues to prevent the bill from being heard didn’t show [last week], and if they persist in doing that I will support a change,” he said. “We need to do something, right now we’re just sitting here staring at the problem. Reality calls and we promptly hang up.” 

Asked if he was concerned the Judiciary Committee was growing more partisan, he added, “Yes, but I don’t know what to do about it. We live in partisan times.” 

Sen. Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisRep. Mark Walker announces Senate bid in North Carolina Grassley returns to Capitol after having coronavirus McConnell halts in-person Republican lunches amid COVID-19 surge MORE (R-N.C.) also criticized Democrats, stating that the panel’s bipartisan traditions “got broken when they failed to come to the table.” 

“They don’t show, we got work to do,” Tillis added about waiving the committee’s rules. 

The partisan divide on Judiciary has been growing and growing since the confirmation battle over Supreme Court Justice Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughFor Thanksgiving, the Supreme Court upholds religious liberty COVID-19: Justice Alito overstepped judicial boundaries Defusing the judicial confirmation process MORE. Since then, a steady stream of controversial judicial picks and William BarrBill BarrBarr breaks with Trump on claims of fraud Barr taps attorney investigating Russia probe origins as special counsel Barr says DOJ hasn't uncovered widespread voter fraud in 2020 election MORE’s attorney general nomination have only stoked tensions.

Immigration, in particular, has emerged as a lightning rod. Graham’s bill was scheduled to be taken up in the Judiciary Committee last month but was yanked off the agenda after he and Durbin met with White House adviser Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerTiger King's attorney believes they're close to getting pardon from Trump Trump has discussed possible pardons for three eldest children, Kushner: report Trump, Kushner, White House sued by watchdog to prevent illegal deletion of official emails, WhatsApp messages MORE, President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump alludes to possible 2024 run in White House remarks Trump threatens to veto defense bill over tech liability shield Tiger King's attorney believes they're close to getting pardon from Trump MORE's son-in-law. Those talks have since unraveled amid deep partisan divisions. 

Durbin told The Hill that he believes Graham is getting urged by GOP leadership to get the asylum bill through committee this week, even though it can’t get the 60 votes needed to pass the Senate as currently written. 

“I think he’s receiving instructions and maybe even pressure from the leadership to move this bill,” Durbin said. “I think that Senator McConnell will want to be able to point to it on the calendar.”

Feinstein sent Graham a letter late last week warning that waiving the rules would set “an unfortunate precedent” and urging him to delay his asylum bill until after the recess. 

“If the Majority party can simply ignore Committee rules when they become inconvenient and proceed in any manner it so chooses, then the Committee cannot function,” she said. 

Graham says Democrats have tied his hands. 

“I’ve tried for about six weeks to find a way forward, and I don’t see a way forward, so we’ll just mark up the bill. A lot of people wanted to bring the bill directly to the floor I would rather go through the committee process,” Graham told The Hill.