U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham talks to a reporter as he arrives at Capitol Hill in Washington U.S. on May 10, 2016.
Photo by Carlos Barria/Reuters

Graham defends shutdown strategy, suggests Dems hurt GOP’s feelings

Updated

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) didn’t raise any objections three weeks ago when the Senate approved – by way of a voice vote – a spending package that would’ve prevented a government shutdown, without funding for a medieval border wall. At the time, the White House assured senators that Donald Trump would sign the bill and keep the government open.

A day later, conservative media told the president to change course, and he did – at which point the South Carolina senator changed right along with him. In fact, yesterday, Graham appeared on CBS News’ “Face the Nation” and defended his party’s posture in a rather unusual way.

Graham said Republicans are “not going to put any offers on the table as long as people in charge of these negotiations accuse all of us who want a wall of being a racist and see our Border Patrol agents as gassing children. Until you get that crowd put to the sidelines, I don’t see anything happening.”

“Why would you negotiate with someone who calls you a racist?” Graham said.

The senator added, “I think we’ll have offers on the table when we find somebody that’s not crazy to deal with.” In the context of the interview, Graham’s comments seemed to be directed at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

The comments may have been a bit more candid than the Republican lawmaker intended. To hear Graham tell it, as the GOP’s shutdown continues into its third week, his party is reluctant to even propose possible solutions. That’s not an especially sound position given the fact that House Dems have already passed a resolution to the shutdown – the same one that Graham and other Senate Republicans approved of as recently as Dec. 19.

But it was that other line from Graham that stood out for me: “Why would you negotiate with someone who calls you a racist?” So, are we to believe Republicans might work constructively toward ending their shutdown if Democrats stopped hurting GOP leaders’ feelings?

If this seems at all familiar, it’s because we’ve been here before. In 1995, in the midst of the longest government shutdown in American history, then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) publicly confessed he’d shut down the government in part because then-President Bill Clinton had seated him toward the back of Air Force One following Yitzhak Rabin’s funeral in Israel.

“This is petty,” Gingrich acknowledged at the time. But, he added, “You’ve been on the plane for 25 hours and nobody has talked to you, and they ask you to get off the plane by the back ramp…. You just wonder, where is their sense of manners? Where is their sense of courtesy?” The Republican Speaker concluded, “It’s petty, but I think it’s human.”

The Gingrich “cry baby” meme soon followed.

More than a decade later, in 2008, as the global economy crashed, the House was poised to approve a rescue plan for the financial industry, but Republicans balked in the 11th hour, saying they were offended by Nancy Pelosi’s speech on the economic crisis. The top three leaders of the House Republican caucus – all of whom supported the legislation – held a press conference to say, earnestly and sincerely, that Pelosi’s “partisan” speech led at least a dozen House Republican lawmakers to vote against a package they would have otherwise supported.

It was a stunning admission: GOP leaders effectively said their own members voted against the nation’s interests during a crisis because Nancy Pelosi had hurt their feelings.

I’ll never forget then-Rep. Barney Frank’s (D-Mass.) response to the Republicans’ argument:

“Frankly, that’s an accusation against my Republican colleagues I would have never thought of making. Here’s the story: there’s a terrible crisis affecting the American economy. We have come together on a bill to alleviate the crisis. And because somebody hurt their feelings, they decide to punish the country. I mean, I would not have imputed that degree of pettiness and hypersensitivity. […]

“Think about this. ‘Somebody hurt my feelings, so I will punish the country.’ That’s hardly plausible. And there are 12 Republican members who were ready to stand up for the economic interest of America, but not if anybody insulted them. I’ll make an offer. Give me those 12 people’s names and I will go talk uncharacteristically nicely to them and tell them what wonderful people they are and maybe they’ll now think about the country.”

A decade later, Republicans have shut down the government, and Lindsey Graham asked a national television audience, “Why would you negotiate with someone who calls you a racist?”

If Democrats agreed to say nice things about Republican views on race, would the GOP end the shutdown? If Nancy Pelosi were uncharacteristically nice to Republican leaders, would GOP policymakers agree to take the same position they held a few weeks ago?