Genial Lindsey Graham suddenly turns partisan bulldog on health care

U.S. Capitol Police maintain order as hundreds of people, many with disabilities, arrive for a Senate Finance Committee hearing on the last-ditch GOP push to overhaul the nation's health care system, on Capitol Hill in Washington Monday.
U.S. Capitol Police maintain order as hundreds of people, many with disabilities, arrive for a Senate Finance Committee hearing on the last-ditch GOP push to overhaul the nation's health care system, on Capitol Hill in Washington Monday. AP

Sen. Lindsey Graham has spent years crafting a reputation as a bridge-builder, a “consensus guy,” on policy areas that typically polarize the two parties.

Now he’s leading one of the year’s most polarizing debates, and colleagues and constituents alike are seeing a more partisan side of the South Carolina Republican.

Graham is the top name on the last-ditch and likely doomed GOP health care overhaul plan, a bill gobbling up the Capitol’s media attention.

He insisted he hasn’t changed his ways. He told McClatchy on Monday night that Democrats tend to believe he’s “a great guy when I’m working with [them] on non-conservative causes,” but at the end of the day he’s always a staunch Republican.

“I’m the same guy both times,” Graham continued. “What I’m not going to be is drowned out, shouted down and intimidated.”

Graham may be philosophically unchanged, but his role in the health care debate has him playing a different kind of part.

The first time the Senate failed to advance an Obamacare repeal bill earlier this year, Graham bemoaned 11th hour, closed-door negotiations and called for an amendment process, robust debate and a cost analysis from the Congressional Budget Office. Now, he’s promoting fast passage of his bill in order to meet a Sept. 30 deadline for advancing health care legislation by 51 votes – and supporting last-minute deals to woo wavering colleagues.

Though he started this process in late July predicting some Democrats would be attracted to the proposal, Graham has gone on to adopt a “with us or against us” mentality for his legislation.

"Here's the choice for America: Socialism or federalism when it comes to your health care,” he said at a press conference last week while drawing comparisons between his bill and a “Medicare for All” plan touted by Sen. Bernie Sanders, Ind.-Vt., and other progressives.

Norman Ornstein, an expert on Congress at the American Enterprise Institute and a longtime observer of Graham, say he’s “baffled” by the senator’s stance.

“He’s been the bridge on important issues that are really important for the country, understanding for the good of the country you have to step on the orthodoxy a bit and find some common ground across lines. He’s kept to his principles,” said Ornstein. “Why Lindsey would join in this and lend his name to this, I can’t explain it.”

Examples of Graham’s refusal to be stifled by party orthodoxy over the years are most strongly seen in his support for expanding legal immigration, acknowledgment that climate change is man-made and insistence on probing Russian interference in the 2016 election – an exercise that could potentially implicate President Donald Trump or his campaign associates.

This isn’t Graham’s first encounter with an ugly political debate. In the past, opponents of comprehensive immigration overhaul efforts dubbed the Palmetto State senator “Lindsey Grahmnesty.” Graham also recalled that the mid-1990s debate to overhaul the country’s welfare system was particularly painful.

“Anytime you take money and power out of Washington, you’re going to have a fight on your hands,” said Graham. “The liberal narrative is we’re all mean and evil as Republicans, but let’s put it this way: If Obamacare had worked, I wouldn’t be here.”

But the emotions at a Senate Finance Committee hearing Monday afternoon on the health care bill were running especially high. As Graham sat in the hearing room waiting to testify on his proposal, activists behind him chanted “No cuts to Medicaid, save our liberty.” Many were so passionately opposed to this legislation that even those ordinarily confined to wheelchairs were willing to be hauled out by their hands and feet by Capitol police officers.

As Graham left to return to his office following his testimony before the Senate Finance Committee, protesters lining the hallways loudly booed him and shouted “Shame, shame, shame.”

Daniel Kleinmann, an activist from Pennsylvania suffering from muscular dystrophy who traveled to D.C. to protest the bill, held up a copy of a newspaper featuring a photograph of Graham beside former Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., a staunch conservative. Unlike Graham, Santorum has a reputation as more of an ideologue and helped develop the bill’s framework.

“Lindsey Graham should be a consensus-builder, he should be the big boy on campus, he should not be going around reaching and asking for the hands of people who are dividers” such as Santorum, Kleinmann said. “He’s one of these people in the Senate who respects the laws of the Senate. He’s an old school guy. This is bizarre for him to be doing.”

Speaking with McClatchy, Graham said those who were surprised by his role in the health care debate now “don’t know me very well.”

“I would say Lindsey Graham represents South Carolina and we’re down to one [insurance] provider, and 31 percent premium increases to the people I represent,” he said. “What I say to my Democratic friends is, ‘I’m sure you meant to help South Carolina. You failed miserably, and I’m gonna change that system. I’d like to work with you, but I’m not afraid of a fight.’ So anybody who writes me off as not being willing to engage when I think they’re wrong is missing the point.”

In the United States Senate, at least, Graham is likely to find that the health care drama won’t hurt his next causes. Personal and professional relationships are stronger than disagreements on any one particular bill, as tense as those disagreements may be.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said he felt for Graham a similar respect that Graham said last week he felt for Sen. John McCain when the Arizona Republican announced he couldn’t support the health care bill.

“I couldn’t disagree more strongly with Sen. Graham on this issue but we’ve worked together on a variety of areas over the years and this absolutely does not change that,” Wyden said.

Asked whether she was surprised by Graham’s role in the health care debate, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., just smiled and shook her head.

“I’m not going down that one,” she said. “I’m not going to throw Lindsey under the bus.”

Emma Dumain @emma_dumain