Lindsey Graham finds himself on the margins of shutdown negotiations

President Donald Trump walks to the Oval Office with Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018, in Washington.
President Donald Trump walks to the Oval Office with Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018, in Washington. AP

Sen. Lindsey Graham is convinced he holds the key to ending the partial government shutdown, but at the moment he’s largely shouting into a void.

The South Carolina Republican with a reputation in Washington as a dealmaker is floating a compromise to an audience that has signaled no desire to cooperate.

For a lawmaker accustomed to being at the center of the action on practically every major legislative fight — he even helped broker a deal to end the last government shutdown nearly a year ago — Graham is noticeably absent from the heart of this battle.

His lack of success so far could be a symptom of the current political climate that’s inhospitable to a player such as Graham. It could also be that he’s out of touch with his colleagues in both parties as he tries to shop a compromise for which few have any appetite.

Graham thinks President Donald Trump, an ally, should provide protections for certain undocumented immigrants at risk of immediate deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, plus those in the United States under Temporary Protected Status. In return for something Democrats want, Congress would give the president the approximately $5 billion he and fellow Republicans want for a border wall.

Graham has been lobbying the president directly on this issue since early December, as Trump made it increasingly clear he was prepared to shut down the government if Congress did not give him money to build a physical barrier at the U.S.-Mexico border to curb illegal immigration. That shutdown will enter its third week Saturday.

On Dec. 30, Graham joined Trump for a two-hour lunch at the White House. Afterwards, the senator told reporters that Trump called a DACA-for-wall-money plan “interesting.”

On CBS’ “Face the Nation” Sunday, Graham — who said he’d spoken to the president over the weekend — again insisted that Trump is open to a DACA fix in exchange for wall funding. Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, who is involved in shutdown negotiations, might also be interested in such a deal.

In remarks Friday, however, following a meeting with congressional leaders, Trump said he wants to wait for the Supreme Court to rule on his bid to overturn DACA before resuming negotiations on broader immigration legislation.

“We’ll discuss it at another time,” Trump said regarding DACA

Graham has also been appealing to Rep. Mark Meadows, R-North Carolina, a leader of the conservative House Freedom Caucus with his own personal ties to Trump. Meadows is urging the president to continue the shutdown for as long as it takes to extract a concession from Democrats on border wall money.

“I’ve talked to Sen. Graham more in the past two weeks than I have in the last six years, so, yeah, we’ve been talking on a daily basis about options,” Meadows told reporters Thursday. “Sen. Graham has talked about a number of things that he’s asked if conservatives can help with.”

Yet few lawmakers so far are seriously discussing Graham’s proposal as a possible shutdown exit strategy, a silence the senator said has left him “dumbfounded.”

One explanation for the lack of interest in pursuing a path relating to DACA is that trust has eroded between Democrats and Republicans — particularly between Democrats and the Trump White House — on this issue.

“I know people in our caucus would consider” linking DACA to wall funding, said Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Arizona, whose district includes a large swath of the U.S.-Mexico border. “But if that universe was possible, I think we would have explored it already.”

“We’re in a position now where, when the president makes these claims and promises, we — and I hope for I speak for Sen. Graham — are a little bit skeptical,” Graham’s longtime collaborator on immigration overhaul legislation, Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois, told CBS Sunday.

Trump’s hesitation to offer Graham’s deal could be because the president feels burned, Graham suggested in late December on the eve of the start of the shutdown.

“I think he’s open to some kind of DACA deal, I really do,” Graham told McClatchy last month. “I think he’s reluctant to put it on the table because he put it on once before and they rejected it.”

Graham was referring to a White House offer last January that would have codified DACA, plus implemented a variety of other controversial changes to immigration law, in exchange for border wall funding. Democrats, however, contend it was Trump who ultimately walked away from an immigration compromise.

Graham himself might also be playing a role in poisoning the political atmosphere that’s hurting his ability to broker a deal.

While he speaks passionately about the need for compromise and the importance of protecting DACA recipients, he has also been actively and enthusiastically supporting the shutdown in sharply partisan terms.

He’s used Twitter and cable news to let Trump know he should “dig in” on demanding the wall and that the president should “break” the new House Democratic majority. Graham told Fox News on Wednesday that if Trump caves it could be “the end of his presidency.”

Graham suggested on CBS Sunday the only thing holding back a DACA deal were Democrats who won’t agree to fund the wall while they embrace the “radical left” factions in their party that want to abolish the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

“I think we’ll have offers on the table when we find somebody that’s not crazy to deal with,” Graham said. “As long as the radical left is in charge, we’re not gonna get anywhere.”

This is the kind of talk many of Graham’s constituents want to hear. Long maligned by his critics as “Lindsey Grahamnesty” for his support for comprehensive immigration reform, Graham emerged from Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings a conservative hero, eradicating the threat of a serious primary challenge when the senator is up for reelection in 2020.

The rhetoric is alienating, however, to Democrats who don’t see room for compromise on the wall.

“We’re not doing a wall. Does anybody have any doubt about that? We are not doing a wall,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, someone Graham has criticized as being detrimental to negotiations, said Thursday.

Relenting on DACA is also not resonating strongly with some of the Republicans on Capitol Hill who Trump relies on to give him readings on the pulse of the conservative base.

Meadows told reporters Friday a “very narrow” deal involving DACA could pass muster but nothing more than that.

On NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday, Mick Mulvaney, White House acting chief of staff and a former South Carolina Republican congressman, sought to downplay Graham’s influence or understanding of how Trump operates.

“You know that I like Lindsey Graham and he’s a good friend of mine. We’re from South Carolina,” Mulvaney said. “He’s not as good a politician as Donald Trump or else he’d be president.”

Graham ran for president in 2016, and he and Trump were bitter rivals on the campaign trail.

Still, Graham isn’t giving up. His spokesman, Kevin Bishop, said the senator was continuing to “work the phones and speak with everyone” from his home this weekend in South Carolina.

“Hopefully discussions over the weekend lead to a breakthrough that ... Reopens the government ... Provides funding for border security/wall ... (And p)rovides certainty to hundreds of thousands of people who will be losing their legal status and thrown into the shadows unless we act,” Graham tweeted Friday.

“One thing remains certain,” he added. “No Money for the Wall, No Deal.”

William Douglas of the McClatchy Washington bureau contributed.
Emma Dumain works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, where her reporting on South Carolina politics appears in The State, The Herald, The Sun News, The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette. She was previously the Washington correspondent for the Charleston, South Carolina Post and Courier. Dumain also covered Congress for Roll Call and Congressional Quarterly.