In an effort to force asylum seekers away from the southern border, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham is ready to go where he’s never gone before.
He’s breaking with longtime immigration policy collaborators across the aisle. He’s giving up on compromise. And he’s prepared to wield his power to change the very rules past versions of himself have defended.
On Thursday, Graham is poised to waive the rules of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, which he chairs, in order to force a debate on his bill to change asylum laws, which Democrats abhor, as a way to address the migrant crisis at the southern border.
It’s a move that could alienate his Democratic allies — the very ones who helped Graham cultivate his image as a dealmaker whose relationships could transcend the most partisan political moments.
“I told him it is the first immigration bill before the committee in the last six or seven years. It’s the first partisan immigration bill that we’ve ever had, that I know of,” said U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the chamber’s No. 2 Democrat who has worked with Graham on numerous immigration bills over the years.
“I think it’s a terrible mistake that will sharply divide our committee,” said U.S. Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, another Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Graham said he wasn’t concerned about poisoning the well with his approach to the immigration debate.
“I don’t think things can be more poisoned than they are now,” he said of the partisan toxicity in Washington, D.C.
While pushing his bill, Graham has defended himself as an honest broker. He postponed earlier consideration of the legislation to allow for negotiations with Durbin. He crossed the Capitol to meet with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi about pairing his changes to asylum laws with increased humanitarian aid to Central American countries.
“I made a promise to the people at the border that I would try to fix this,” Graham said, referring to federal law enforcement agents. “I waited for six weeks. A lot of people wanted to take the bill directly to the floor. I didn’t particularly want to do that. I am trying to keep it in the committee, but I gotta act. I am the chairman of the committee.”
‘I can’t find any buy-in’
Despite those efforts, Graham still is moving ahead with an enforcement-first bill that, unlike other immigration proposals he has worked on, has no chances of passing both chambers of Congress and being signed into law.
And some of Graham’s Democratic colleagues this week could not promise that how Graham chooses to proceed on Thursday won’t have lasting implications for their ability to work with him on immigration deals going forward.
“I’m afraid it may well” complicate future efforts, Coons said.
Since May, Graham has been shopping a bill known as the “Secure and Protect Act of 2019,” which he says would address the crisis-level influx of migrants seeking entry into the United States at the southern border.
Immigrants now expect to be able to enter the United States by declaring asylum once they’ve reached the border, Graham said. His bill would change the law so that immigrants would only be granted entry if they’ve made an asylum claim in their home countries first.
Democrats oppose this proposal because they say it minimizes the dangers that cause people to flee their homes: the decision often is a matter of life and death, leaving little time to declare asylum before heading to the United States’ southern border.
Democrats have pleaded with Graham to work with them to find a bipartisan compromise. Graham insists he has tried, but he isn’t going to budge on changing asylum laws, and that’s a deal breaker for Democrats.
So last week, Graham announced he was finished negotiating, and the Senate Judiciary Committee would finally vote on his bill this coming Thursday.
With Democrats threatening a boycotting, Graham also said he would use procedural maneuvers to temporarily circumvent committee rules that would ordinarily prevent the bill’s consideration without a quorum.
“It would be nice to marry that (bill) with aid to Central America, but I can’t find any buy-in to changing the asylum laws,” Graham said. “Every now and then you just have a contest of ideas, and on Thursday we will have a contest of ideas.”
‘Wrong on this one’
The committee’s top Democrat, California U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, sent Graham a letter last Friday formally urging him to reconsider his plans. On Tuesday, she said she was still holding out hope he would back down: “We need more light than we need heat, and I still hope that we’ll be able to work together in a bipartisan way.”
Asked whether she would seek to amend the bill — to engage in that “contest of ideas” — Feinstein replied she was not yet decided.
Graham might still have some goodwill left with Democrats on immigration, despite the bad feelings that could result from Thursday’s committee meeting.
He has not yet disassociated himself with the sweeping bipartisan bills that called for expanding legal immigration and granting stays of deportation to the young undocumented immigrants brought into the country illegally by their parents — the very bills that earned Graham the derisive nickname “Lindsey Grahamnesty” and could have cost him his 2014 reelection primary.
Earlier this summer, Graham was proud to have extracted a concession from the acting secretary of Homeland Security that the immigration overhaul bill he helped negotiate in 2013 — which passed in the U.S. Senate but was never taken up in the U.S. House — would have addressed many of the issues now contributing to current crisis at the southern border.
He even told reporters Tuesday that “Trump should have took the deal” he and Durbin presented to him two years ago.
“I think he is a good partner when he chooses to be,” said U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., another longtime immigration policy collaborator of Graham’s. “But he’s just wrong on this one.”