Lindsey Graham spent the hours before the government shutdown shuttling between Democratic and Republican leadership offices, a lonely, lively quest to somehow broker a deal that would stop the imminent government shutdown.
This was the South Carolina Republican in his element, quipping that he was simply sampling everyone’s dinner options — chicken for Democrats, pizza for Republicans.
“I just got food, y’all need to get out of my way,” Graham said as he pursued his hallway diplomacy.
But this was no joke. Over the course of almost two hours, ending just after the government shut down at midnight, Graham held court in a highly unusual public display, all eyes on him as he laid out his arguments and dispatched colleagues to go spread the word about the deal he sought.
Graham got a small triumph in that first shutdown hour. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., embraced Graham’s idea to keep the government running until Feb. 8, rather than the rejected measure to continue funding until Feb. 16. The plan still needs congressional approval.That achievement, overlooked as the shutdown commenced, could expedite an end to the stand-off on Capitol Hill.
It’s not yet clear, however, whether the gambit will work.
Regardless of whether Graham found the sweet spot that will end the impasse, his role in eleventh-hour negotiations cemented his status as one of the Senate’s most unrelenting, aspiring dealmakers who can appeal to members on both sides of the aisle, a lawyer-turned-politician who always seems able to insert himself at the center of the action no matter the issue, and no matter how modestly he might be able to move the needle.
Along with Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., Graham also was able to extract a commitment from party leaders to begin an open debate on the Senate floor on a variety of immigration overhaul proposals, including their own, before the proposed Feb. 8 deadline. The hope is to reach a deal to protect the recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — nearly 800,000 undocumented immigrants at risk for deportation after March 5 — possibly even in time to link the issue to a longer-term budget agreement, pleasing Democrats.
At the moment, though, nothing is moving. The Senate adjourned before 2 a.m. on Saturday with Republicans blaming Democrats for shutting down the government over DACA, with Democrats not ready to say whether they’ll go along with the plan.
Sen. Joe Manchin, a moderate Democrat from West Virginia, said he believed members of his party were still holding out for a spending bill that would run just before Jan. 30, the date of the scheduled State of the Union address.
Still, the Friday night and Saturday morning drama marked the first time in a very long week that Graham has been sought after for information beyond just more details about what transpired at a Jan. 11 Oval Office meeting, where Trump reportedly disparaged immigrants from “shithole countries” and rejected the senator’s bipartisan immigration proposal.
Those events appeared to have left Graham for a time without the leverage of his alliance with the president — as of Friday afternoon, when asked if he’d spoken to the president in the past week, Graham chuckled and replied, “not lately” — and without his seat at the head of the negotiating table over an immigration compromise.
Through most of the day Friday, Graham appeared to be content — or resigned — to influence the debate from the sidelines, even if it meant being a party contrarian.
He made it clear he would not support the four-week spending bill that passed the House the night before, furious it didn’t contain more long-term certainty for the military and convinced the only way to get full-year defense funding was to make a deal with Democrats on DACA.
He wasn’t sticking to the Republicans’ script of blaming Democrats for the looming government shutdown. He praised Trump for inviting Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., for a meeting at the White House Friday afternoon, while colleagues viewed the one-on-one summit with deep suspicion.
Graham articulated his stances through a series of tweets and written statements. At one point in the mid-morning, he hosted MSNBC in his office for a brief interview, where he provided his first clue that he might be doing more than just fortifying his position on social media: He interrupted a live television broadcast to take a call from Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., with whom he’d been working on immigration legislation. He said he’d call him back.
Any efforts at compromise moved slowly Friday afternoon and into the evening. But with four hours to go, Graham went into McConnell’s second-floor Capitol office. Then he was out, turning left and then right into Schumer’s office. Then back to McConnell, all within a roughly half-hour.
With an hour and 46 minutes left till midnight, the Senate would begin voting on limiting debate, the big test of whether there was enough support for the Feb. 16 spending plan. Graham was shopping a proposal to pass the three-week spending measure, but Republicans wouldn’t say they’d commit to that and Democrats called it unsatisfactory.
So another deal was in the offing: An agreement to revisit the framework that had been considered the leading proposal to deal with the DACA population until the White House meeting, where Trump suddenly signaled it was a nonstarter.
Mid-bite into one of the chocolate Hersey’s Kisses McConnell keeps in his office, Graham headed to the floor for the vote, cautiously upbeat, even though he knew the effort to limit debate would fail.
“I’ve never felt better, and I may live to eat these words, that Congress is beginning to realize the American people expect more of it,” he said.
As members came to cast their votes, Graham worked the room. For close to an hour, he stood at his desk beside Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Flake — and, as if drawn to a magnet, more and more members came over to strategize.
Graham was wheeling and dealing. At one point he made a quick trip to an anteroom, returning to speak with McConnell and Senate Republican Whip John Cornyn of Texas with a cryptic, but victorious-seeming, pump of his fist. Otherwise, he stayed on the floor for the entire time, appearing to have spoken to nearly every Democratic senator.
When McConnell finally closed the vote after midnight, and the shutdown was on, he and Schumer exchanged a few rounds of blistering partisan sniping and name-calling that seemed to suggest efforts to reach an agreement had fallen short.
McConnell eventually announced he would seek to advance a spending bill with a Feb. 8 expiration date — crediting Graham with the idea — but lawmakers left the Capitol for the night without any certainty what would happen next.
Graham issued a statement Saturday morning, once the sun had come up, saying he felt confident that members on both sides of the aisle were comfortable with the deal he had helped broker.
“After my discussions with numerous senators on both sides of the last night it is clear to me a commitment to move to immigration after February 8th is the key to ending the government shutdown and finding resolution on all the outstanding issues,” he said. “I’m hopeful.”
Brian Murphy of the McClatchy Washington bureau contributed to this report.