Democrats blast SC’s Lindsey Graham as GOP pushes ahead on bill to curb asylum seekers

Republicans on the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee voted to advance Lindsey Graham’s controversial asylum legislation on Thursday — and Democrats revolted.

One by one, the South Carolina Republican chairman’s longtime colleagues and allies on the other side of the aisle took turns eviscerating his leadership.

“This is not the Senate I joined in 1993,” said the committee’s top Democrat, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California.

U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont tore up a piece of paper to represent his disgust with the process, accusing Graham of turning the Senate Judiciary Committee into the “Donald Trump Committee.”

And U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island read aloud a statement Graham once made about the importance of pursuing bipartisanship on immigration legislation.

“I’d like to see that guy back,” Whitehouse concluded — a nod to accusations that Graham has transformed into a fierce partisan in the Trump era.

Part of the Democrats’ anger with Graham was that he was breaking the bipartisan traditions of the Judiciary Committee to advance a partisan bill that has no chance of being signed into law.

Graham conceded Democrats were right that his bill, as written, will go nowhere. And later, once the measure had passed the committee along party lines, Graham said he wanted to keep negotiating.

“The only way you get this thing fixed is a broader deal,” he told reporters.

But that invitation to come back to the table came after a particularly ugly debate: nearly every Democrat on the committee has taken a turn in the trenches with Graham trying to fix the nation’s immigration system, and they were all signaling to Graham that this tradition might now be irrevocably compromised.

‘I did something’

Graham said he understood why Democrats were upset. He told reporters he asked Republicans on the committee to sit quietly during proceedings just to allow lawmakers on the other side of the aisle to vent.

But he also was furious with Democrats for boycotting a committee meeting last week preventing him from moving his asylum bill forward, prompting him to waive committee rules to allow a vote on the legislation Thursday.

And he fought back against accusations that he had not tried to find a compromise on his bill, which he insists is the only way to control the influx of undocumented immigrants at the U.S.-Mexico border.

“It would be different if I had not tried,” Graham said, “(but) for seven weeks I held up marking up this bill and I got nowhere, and I’m never going to get anywhere.”

His legislation, the “Secure and Protect Act of 2019,” would among other things force migrants to make asylum claims in their home countries and bar the practice at the southern border. Democrats have said this is a nonstarter, arguing it puts an undue burden on migrants who have to flee their homes quickly amid threats of imminent violence.

Graham also disputed accusations that he was moving forward just to please President Donald Trump, an insinuation made by U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois — Graham’s longtime immigration policy collaborator — in a later statement referring derisively to the “Graham-Trump bill.”

Asked by The State whether Trump had asked him to proceed, Graham said “no,” but added he was getting immense pressure from his GOP colleagues.

“They want to be able to go home and say, ‘I did something that would fix this problem,’” said Graham, adding that South Carolina voters are also eager for the GOP to take action on an issue that has national security repercussions as well.

“One hundred percent,” he said when asked if his constituents had concerns about the border crisis. “I mean, it’s just on Fox News 24 hours a day.”

Thursday’s vote came on the last day the Senate is in session this month, as lawmakers head home to their districts through early September.

No regrets

In many ways, Graham has placed himself in another potentially unwinnable situation.

If he tries to work with Democrats on compromise, he could get hammered by hardline Republicans when he’s up for reelection in 2020.

The Federation for American Immigration Relief, which opposes expanding legal immigration, is already eyeing Graham — a longtime foe — with suspicion.

“Trading a handful of reforms for any amnesty will undermine the bill’s very purpose by encouraging further illegal immigration and making a mockery of our immigration system,” said government relations director RJ Hauman.

Graham also could end up expending political capital to make a deal with Democrats on immigration that won’t come to fruition, since he’s not willing to give up on changing asylum laws and that’s a nonstarter for Democrats.

In the process, Graham could continue to lose support from the pro-immigrant advocacy groups that have always stood by him when he was being picked apart by conservative critics.

“As Senator Graham performs today for an audience of one, those of us who knew him when mourn the loss of a leader who once fought bravely for great causes and now fights cravenly for a cruel man,” America’s Voice executive director Frank Sharry said in a statement.

On Thursday, Graham told reporters he had no regrets.

“I feel good about what I did.”

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.