WASHINGTON — If Sen. Lindsey Graham wants to know why his foreign aid bill has stalled in the Senate, he need only look in the direction of the junior senator from his home state of South Carolina.
In an extraordinary clash between Republican senators from the same state, Sen. Jim DeMint forced Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to postpone consideration last week of the $53.3 billion foreign aid spending measure over DeMint's demand that it be debated by itself rather than combined with other spending measures.
"I respect and work well with Lindsey, and I share his goal to secure our homeland and advance America's interests abroad," DeMint told McClatchy. "But I will continue to object to out-of-control spending and insist we have a full debate on every spending bill."
DeMint's move was a setback for Graham, who's the senior Republican on the Senate appropriations foreign operations subcommittee, which funds aid to other countries, U.S. embassies and other State Department operations.
Graham has criticized GOP presidential candidates and other party leaders this year for what he describes as a growing isolationism that repudiates the muscular foreign policy of President Ronald Reagan.
"Increasingly, United States assistance, which accounts for about 1 percent of federal spending, is national security-related," Graham told McClatchy. "And the assistance provided in the bill reflects our national security priorities."
Graham and DeMint were elected to the Senate two years apart — Graham in 2002, DeMint in 2004 — and they live less than an hour's drive from each other along a state highway in the conservative Upstate region.
The unusual dispute between them over foreign aid reflects a broader divide within the Republican Party over U.S. priorities overseas and how deeply federal spending should be cut.
DeMint, who worked with fellow Republican Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana to block the foreign aid bill, said it "wastes over $1 billion on global warming initiatives in other countries."
Graham, who worked with Democratic senators in late 2009 and into last year in a failed bid to advance climate change legislation, doesn't view such spending as a waste.
Graham, a military lawyer who's served on active duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, says that those wars and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that precipitated them show the dangers of U.S. disengagement from the world.
As a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Graham has met with opposition leaders of the Arab Spring pro-democracy revolts roiling the Middle East. He's established close ties with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who sends him on secret missions abroad, and with CIA director David Petraeus, the retired general who commanded U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"The biggest supporters of these (foreign aid) programs are our military leaders," Graham said. "They realize this is an essential piece in protecting our own nation."
DeMint, dubbed Senator Tea Party for his ultraconservative views and hardball tactics, represents the wing of the Republican Party whose members see the United States as being on the cusp of economic catastrophe, and he thinks unsustainable federal debt dwarfs foreign threats in importance.
"America is $15 trillion in debt, and we're headed to bankruptcy unless we rethink our spending priorities in every area, and that absolutely includes re-evaluating all foreign aid," DeMint said. "It's simply outrageous that Congress wants to raise taxes while at the same time we're increasing spending on foreign operations by 10 percent over the last year."
Last year, before Graham joined the Appropriations Committee, Congress approved $48.3 billion for foreign operations in the 2011 fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30.
Graham and Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the chairman of the Senate foreign operations subcommittee, now are pushing a bill that would spend $53.5 billion in the current fiscal year. Graham said the measure made foreign aid contingent on other nations acting in accord with pivotal U.S. interests.
Graham's position as one of the Senate's senior Republicans on the 12 appropriations subcommittees makes it difficult for him to vote against other spending bills.
On Nov. 1, he and DeMint were among 12 Republican senators who voted for GOP Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn's losing amendment to strip $1 billion in funding from the Rural Development Agency, even though it pays for dozens of projects in South Carolina to provide senior housing, wastewater treatment plants and other needs.
But when the Senate voted later that day on a much larger appropriations bill for the U.S Departments of Agriculture, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, Commerce and Justice, Graham joined 15 other Republicans in backing it while DeMint was among 30 GOP senators to oppose it.
Last Thursday, after Reid pulled the foreign aid measure, the Senate passed legislation to fund the federal government at current spending levels through Dec. 16 — without the increased foreign aid Graham and Leahy sought — by a 70-30 vote.
Nine of the 12 Senate Republican top appropriators, including Graham, voted for the measure; DeMint and 29 other Republicans against it.
DeMint and Graham share some views about the foreign aid measure. Each, for instance, opposes allowing other governments to use U.S. assistance to perform abortions.
Graham minimizes his differences with DeMint.
The senior senator from South Carolina said that he, too, would like the Senate to return to its practice of debating and voting on appropriations bills one by one instead of passing temporary measures that fund the government for short periods.
"Jim and I are both frustrated about the way the Senate is doing its business," Graham said. "These are tough fiscal times. We ought to be looking for areas of the government we can cut back and duplicative programs we could consolidate.
"But the process we're using right now has no rhyme or reason outside of allowing members of the Senate to duck taking tough votes."
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