WASHINGTON — A throng of reporters surrounded Sen. Lindsey Graham as he walked at his normal warp speed through the byzantine tunnels beneath the U.S. Capitol.
Thrusting recorders in his face, some of them half-trotting backward, the journalists yelled out rapid-fire questions at the South Carolina Republican, one on top of the next before he could respond.
"What's the White House meeting on immigration about?"
"Where are you and (Senators) Kerry and Lieberman at on climate change?"
"Are you close to a deal on KSM and Gitmo?"
As the health care furor subsides and lawmakers look toward the fall elections, Graham finds himself in the odd position of denying recent media portrayals of him as the indispensable man — as the lone Republican senator willing to work with Democratic President Barack Obama on high-profile issues.
Graham's engagement with Obama on terrorism, energy, immigration and other key policy matters angers conservative activists, while making Graham a regular on TV news shows and keeping his name in the headlines.
Taking a short break, Graham sat on an antique bench outside the Senate chamber and reflected on all the attention he's received as a key deal broker.
"I'm getting far more criticism and far more credit than I deserve," Graham told McClatchy on Thursday. "I'm stepping out on some pretty high-profile issues, and that always helps you emerge from the pack. Quite frankly, I don't take it that seriously."
Graham is angry with Obama over the health care fracas. In uncharacteristically harsh terms, the senator decried the "sleazy" political tactics and "despicable" parliamentary maneuvers he accused Obama and allied Democratic leaders of having used to push the landmark measure through Congress.
"The consequences of passing the bill this way will be with us for a very long time," Graham said. "The president has lost his moral authority to lead this nation to make hard decisions. He has become a partisan politician in the worst way."
Yet, Graham said he won't cease his efforts to find common ground on other pressing problems.
In many respects, Graham has replaced his close friend, John McCain of Arizona, as the go-to Republican senator for Democrats seeking to make a deal on Capitol Hill.
McCain's maverick status has waned since Obama took office in January 2009. The two men's bitter 2008 presidential campaign has made cooperation between them difficult, and McCain is facing a serious Republican primary challenge from J.D. Hayworth, a conservative radio host and former congressman.
Graham's experience as a military lawyer who's about to serve his 20th active-duty tour in Afghanistan and Iraq positions him well to help mold the ongoing transition in U.S. anti-terrorism policies under Obama.
Over the last few weeks, a string of major newspapers and news magazines have reported that Obama and Graham are nearing a "grand deal" on anti-terrorism policies.
Under the purported accord, Graham would help secure Republican support for closing the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay and moving some of the 183 terror suspects held there to a fortified federal prison in Illinois.
In exchange, Obama would reverse his decision to try self-proclaimed Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in civilian court in New York City, agreeing instead to use military commissions for him and other alleged plotters of the 2001 attacks.
Graham helped craft the federal law authorizing the tribunals, but he said new legislation is needed to enable the United States to hold terror detainees indefinitely without charges and to streamline their Supreme Court-ordered habeas access to federal courts.
"The goal here is to develop a comprehensive plan," Graham said. "I've been for closing Guantanamo for a long time. What's changed is (the Obama administration) put Khalid Sheikh Mohammed into a civilian court."
Graham said Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder made a political blunder in November when they announced that Mohammed would be transferred to New York and tried there in federal court, not far from the Ground Zero site of the World Trade Center jetliner assaults.
That decision has prompted loud criticism from across the political spectrum, including some from prominent New York Democrats.
"I think (Obama and Holder) did that because they thought it would be a clean break from the Bush administration," Graham said. "But they've gotten the crap kicked out of them."
Graham, who was re-elected to his second Senate term in 2008, rebutted recent reports that Obama is on the verge of reversing that decision. Rival factions within the administration, he said, remain at odds.
"They're not close" to a decision, he said of the president and his top aides.
While news accounts have focused on his negotiations with White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, Graham said he's had a broad range of discussions with officials at the Pentagon, the Justice Department, the Homeland Security Department and the White House.
Graham said he's met with Holder, Vice President Joe Biden and Obama.
"We've made some concrete proposals," Graham said. "I've talked to the president."
Graham stands virtually alone among Republican lawmakers in calling for the Guantanamo prison's closure and backing a plan to move some detainees to an Illinois prison.
Graham is also isolated within the Senate's GOP caucus in working with Sens. John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, and Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent, on legislation to stem global warming.
The South Carolina senator views his work on terrorism and climate change as interrelated.
"I don't think we'll have energy independence in a meaningful way until we price carbon," he said. "We're more dependent on foreign oil now than we were before September 11th."
Graham, Kerry and Lieberman have met recently with leaders of a dozen major industries in an effort to craft what the South Carolina senator describes as a "more business-friendly" carbon-pricing scheme.
If Congress fails to act, Graham warns, the Environmental Protection Agency will impose draconian regulations.
Graham has also waded back into the immigration thicket, taking on an incendiary issue for which he, McCain and President George W. Bush were burned by conservative activists when they pushed reform legislation in 2007.
Graham and Sen. Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, gave Obama a three-page proposal March 11 at a White House meeting.
Their outline would set up a way for the country's 12 million undocumented workers to gain legal status, while fortifying U.S. borders, expanding temporary worker programs and creating a biometric Social Security card "to ensure that illegal workers cannot get jobs."
At a briefing just before the senators' meeting with Obama, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said it was up to Graham to gain support from other Republican senators.
"Senator Graham is certainly pretty well positioned to take their temperature and see what it's going to take for them to make progress on this issue," Gibbs said.
In a sign of the frayed relations over health care, Graham on Thursday threw the challenge back at Obama.
"To the president: If you want to deliver on your wavering commitment to immigration reform, write a bill," Graham told reporters. "I've done it."
Graham acknowledged that he is doing a balancing act in trying to engage Obama and his Democratic congressional allies, while at the same time criticizing them on numerous policy differences.
"I hope I can work with people, but I also hope I can throw an elbow," Graham said.
McClatchy Newspapers 2010