WASHINGTON — Two influential conservative advocacy groups give Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina low grades on key economic votes last year, mainly because of his support for some major appropriations bills and against several anti-regulatory measures.
And an independent, nonpartisan publication, National Journal, rates 36 of the other 46 Republican senators as more conservative than Graham based on its analysis of 55 votes in 2011 on important economic matters.
One of the advocacy groups, Club for Growth, a leading free-market group, gave Graham a 72 percent score based on 28 votes last year.
The other, Americans for Prosperity, which spent millions helping elect tea party-backed candidates to Congress in 2010, gave Graham a C grade based on 17 votes last year, 10 of which were included in the Club for Growth analysis.
The new ratings, from Club for Growth and Americans for Prosperity as well as National Journal, contradict Graham's claim that he is a fiscal hawk, and they could give ammunition to a potential Republican primary challenger in his 2014 re-election bid.
The rankings also reflect Graham's crucial move to the Senate Appropriations Committee just over a year ago, partly because of his frustration over the failure of Congress or the Army Corps of Engineers to fund the deepening of the Charleston, S.C., port.
That committee move has paid dividends, with Graham helping to secure $2.5 million for the project and a budget request from President Barack Obama for another $3.5 million to deepen the port. The senator and state business leaders say the project is crucial to accommodate new giant cargo ships.
"Taking a pass on the port of Charleston is not an option," Graham said.
Graham, noting that he is a long-time supporter of a constitutional balanced-budget amendment, questioned the ratings' accuracy and said they don't reflect his broader voting history.
"When it comes to fiscal conservatism, I'll put my record up against anybody's," Graham, of Seneca, S.C., told McClatchy.
Graham, though, acknowledged that his relatively new seat on the Senate Appropriations Committee requires him to back bills by other panel members in order to gain their support.
"It's pretty hard for me to work with my colleagues to get funding for the port — an account that will help the port of Charleston — and vote no," Graham said.
From his seat as senior Republican on the State Department appropriations subcommittee, Graham also is pushing for more foreign aid, a stance at odds with many of his GOP colleagues and the party's four remaining presidential candidates.
Graham's appropriations post may explain the difference between his votes and those of South Carolina's junior senator, fellow Republican Jim DeMint, last year on 12 key spending bills that funded all or parts of the government for varying amounts of time:
DeMint voted against all 12 measures; Graham voted for eight and against four.
DeMint was one of five senators, all Republicans, who received a 100 percent rating from the Club for Growth. His Senate Conservatives Fund helped its former head, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, gain election to the Senate with $61,723 in contributions in the 2010 campaign.
DeMint, of Greenville, S.C., expressed support for Graham, saying he disagrees with critics who malign the senior senator as a RINO — a Republican In Name Only.
"Lindsey has been a really great partner of mine on just about every issue — Social Security reforms, tax reform, a balanced-budget amendment," DeMint said. "He's passionate and great at what he does."
But the contrast between the two senators was clear in their differences over the last and largest of the 12 spending bills, a $1 trillion omnibus measure passed Dec. 17 to fund the government through Sept. 30.
DeMint, who was among 31 GOP senators to vote against the bill, said it broke Republicans' 2010 campaign pledge to cut spending by $100 billion and branded it "a shameful end to a year that began with many bold assurances."
Graham, who joined 15 other Republican senators in backing the measure, said it contained critical provisions he crafted to help ensure future funding for the Charleston port.
"Deepening Charleston Harbor is the number-one issue for South Carolina's economy," Graham said. "Today, about one of every five jobs in South Carolina is tied directly or indirectly to the operation of the port."
The differences in the two senators' voting records reflect broader disagreements over the scope and functions of the federal government.
DeMint, who founded the Senate Tea Party Caucus in early 2011, embraces the movement's goal of significantly slashing federal spending and eliminating large agencies.
Graham casts himself as a Republican in the tradition of former President Ronald Reagan, who he says achieved incremental spending reductions and accepted bipartisan compromises.
"I get where the tea party's coming from on spending," Graham said. "But it's one thing to talk about the problem — you've got to solve it. We've (Republicans) got to prove to the country that we can govern. Are we going to stop veterans' checks? Are we going to basically not pay the military? Somebody up here has to make sure that we find a way to do the basics of government."
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