WASHINGTON - Sen. Lindsey Graham on Thursday nabbed a prized seat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, a post that will make him the South Carolina congressional delegation's go-to guy for bringing federal funds to the state.
Graham, a Seneca Republican in his second term, secured the appropriations seat after weeks of negotiations in which he repelled demands from GOP Senate leaders that he give up his post on the Senate Armed Services Committee in exchange.
"We're going to make some hard decisions sooner rather than later about getting our fiscal house in order, and the Appropriations Committee is the one that writes the checks," Graham told McClatchy.
Graham said he was driven to pursue the appropriations post partly because of his deep concern over South Carolina's failure last year to obtain money to fund a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers study to deepen the Charleston port.
Graham said he was also upset by the state's at least temporary loss of $143 million to save as many as 2,600 public school teachers' jobs in South Carolina.
"I'm now in a position to basically, if push comes to shove, make sure that the legitimate needs of South Carolina are met by the federal government," Graham said. "To me, deepening the Charleston port is a legitimate need — not only for South Carolina, but for the whole (Southeastern) region."
Graham's post could accentuate his differences over spending earmarks with South Carolina's other Republican senator, Jim DeMint, who has led his party's drive against the congressionally directed funding for local projects.
DeMint, emboldened by the arrival of five freshman "tea party" senators he helped elect with large campaign contributions, made it clear that he won't be beyond holding Graham's feet to the fire on enacting deep spending cuts.
"Lindsey's a good friend, and he has been given a tough assignment," DeMint said. "The Appropriations Committee will be the pivotal place where we either cut spending to save our nation or spend ourselves over a fiscal cliff."
Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, senior Republican on the spending panel, welcomed Graham and other new members.
"The new members will make great additions to the committee, which faces tough challenges ahead," Cochrane said. "We will look to them to help the committee make good decisions about how to do more with less."
With Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky announcing committee assignments for the new session of Congress, Graham is one of just four of the 47 GOP senators to land what both parties' rules define as "Super A committees" — the four most powerful panels.
Senate rules prohibit senators from serving on two of the top committees — appropriations, armed services, finance and foreign relations — but Graham said McConnell gave him a waiver that allows him to sit on both appropriations and armed services.
Graham, a military lawyer who just returned from an Air Force Reserve active-duty stint in Afghanistan, said he hopes to gain a seat on the Senate Appropriations Committee's defense subcommittee.
That post would give him Graham, 55, significant say in funding the Pentagon, the Afghanistan war, Iraq reconstruction and other key military programs.
Graham's appropriations assignment required him to give up a seat on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, but the senator said he can protect vets in South Carolina and beyond in his influential new post.
"The first check we write is to defend the nation," Graham said. "I want to make sure our spending on defense is not only smart but efficient. One way to help vets is to make sure the defense of our nation is taken care of."
Seats of power
Senate Republican leaders announced committee assignments for the new session of Congress. Sens. Lindsey Graham and Jim DeMint received key posts:
Appropriations; Armed Services; Judiciary; Budget; Aging
Foreign Relations; Commerce, Science and Transportation; Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs; Joint Economic Committee (with House members)