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Why Lindsey Graham’s opposition to the border deal matters

On border policy, Lindsey Graham urged Republicans to seize this “historic moment” because they won’t “get a better deal.” So why did he vote to kill it?


Before Senate negotiators unveiled their compromise package on border reforms and security aid, proponents imagined how the legislative fight would go. There were informal headcounts as observers considered how many Republican votes a bipartisan bill might be able to garner.

By most measures, Sen. Lindsey Graham was seen as one of the GOP senators who’d likely help advance the legislation. Not only did the South Carolinian have a relevant background on the issue — Graham was, for example, a member of the Gang of Eight in 2013 — but he’d also expressed public support for the latest negotiations.

In fact, Graham went so far as to warn his GOP colleagues not to look a gift horse in the mouth. “To those who think that if President Trump wins, which I hope he does, that we can get a better deal — you won’t,” the South Carolina Republican told reporters. He added, “To my Republican friends: To get this kind of border security without granting a pathway to citizenship is really unheard of. ... So to my Republican colleagues, this is a historic moment to reform the border.”

That was just three weeks ago. This week, Graham voted with his party to kill the deal. A day later, he voted with his party again to reject a debate over a stripped down alternative bill focused on security aid, which Graham ostensibly supports.

Not surprisingly, this didn’t go over especially well among senators who expected more from the South Carolinian. The Hill reported:

Tempers flared on the Senate floor Thursday when Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.) asked Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) to explain why he voted against advancing the border security deal she negotiated, and Graham responded by panning it as a “half-ass” effort to secure the border.

The two had quite a back-and-forth on the Senate floor, touching on procedural and substantive elements, but it culminated in Graham slamming the negotiations themselves — the ones that produced a compromise he publicly praised a few weeks ago — as “a half-ass effort to deal with border security.”

He added that the process was not “a real effort to find border security in a bipartisan way,” despite the fact that the bill was co-authored by Republican Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma and endorsed by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

The Arizona independent then reminded her GOP colleague of a highly relevant detail: “Sen. Graham’s team and Sen. Graham himself were integral parts” of the lengthy negotiations. Sen. Chris Murphy, the lead Democratic negotiator, echoed Sinema’s point.

“His top staff were in the room when we negotiated the bill,” the Connecticut senator wrote via social media. “We negotiated key provisions directly with him.”

In other words, Graham ended up rejecting a bill he not only praised, but also helped negotiate the terms of.

Stepping back, it is certainly not new that Graham, in the age of Trump, is no longer the senator he once was. I’m not in a position to say with confidence why the longtime GOP lawmaker ended up rejecting the legislation he supported, but few would be surprised if a call from Mar-a-Lago had something to do with it.

But there are practical considerations to consider. Graham — traditionally one of his party’s more constructive dealmakers — publicly urged Republicans to seize this “historic moment” because they won’t “get a better deal,” and then he opposed the bill anyway, leaving the political world with an awkward question for which there is no good answer:

How do Democrats negotiate with Republicans who don’t know what they want, reject the bills they support, and balk at taking yes for an answer?