Sen. Lindsey Graham is feeling kind of lonely these days.
The South Carolina Republican supports his leadership’s position to not hold so much as a hearing on whomever President Barack Obama nominates to replace the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. But that doesn’t mean he’s happy it has come to this, nor does he see any way to defuse the partisan arms race that has resulted in Capitol Hill’s current gridlock. “I’d love to walk it back. Yeah, I’d love to walk it back,” Graham said recently about the atmosphere of reprisals in the Senate that has landed the chamber in its current battle over the Supreme Court, an atmosphere he blames largely on Democrats.
It’s an issue of personal resonance for Graham, who was a member of the “Gang of 14,” a bipartisan group that banded together in May 2005 to make sure the Senate didn’t devolve into all-out warfare over judicial nominees.
“I was one of the ‘Gang of 14’ at the time that said, ‘Let’s not go down that road.’ Seven Democrats. Seven Republicans. Only three of us are left,” he said, somewhat forlornly at a Judiciary Committee meeting on March 10 when senators postponed their scheduled business for an airing of grievances on the nomination battle. Back in 2005, the Senate majority leader at the time, Republican Bill Frist of Tennessee, had grown frustrated with Democrat filibusters of judicial nominees put forward by President George W. Bush. He was ready to change the rules to allow a simple majority vote to approve them, the so-called nuclear option.
The “Gang of 14” cast a wide net and included Graham and fellow Republicans John Warner of Virginia, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine, John McCain of Arizona, Mike DeWine of Ohio and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, along with Democrats Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Ken Salazar of Colorado.
The gang held together to prevent Frist’s proposed rules change and pledged not to filibuster judicial nominees unless an extraordinary circumstance warranted it — although the definition of what that entailed was left somewhat vague. They’d know it when they saw it was the generally agreed-upon talking point.
Regardless, the nuclear option was averted, and most of Bush’s nominees got through the process. That arrangement held, for the most part, until November 2013. That’s when Democrats, frustrated with procedural blockades Republicans threw up against Obama’s judicial nominees, went nuclear and paved the way for dozens of his picks to be confirmed by majority votes.
At that point, no gang re-upped to take the place of the original to hold off the nuclear winter, a fact Graham and other Republicans still bemoan and argue set the stage for the current confrontation.
“When they decided to change the rules on appellate court judges and district court judges, I don’t know how you go back. That’s the nuclear option. They pressed the nuclear button for everything but the Supreme Court,” he said in an interview.
The “Gang of 14” wasn’t the only informal group Graham has been a part of to try to make the Senate work better. In April 2013, Graham, McCain and Republicans Marco Rubio of Florida and Jeff Flake of Arizona joined with Democrats Michael Bennet of Colorado, Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, Charles E. Schumer of New York and Robert Menenedez of New Jersey to form the “Gang of Eight” to advance comprehensive immigration legislation.
That bill, which included a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and established a guest-worker program, passed the Senate 68-32 in June 2013. It was never brought up in the House.
Graham was criticized for his part in the “Gang of Eight” in his 2014 primary, but went on to win that and re-election easily. Rubio has been pilloried by Republicans on the presidential campaign trail for his role in the legislation.
The South Carolinian still holds out hope the Senate can work again the way he and others hope it can, with across-the-aisle cooperation.
“I’m actually into getting something done this year. You know, we’ll have some policy debates, but my main goal is to run the Senate like it should be run,” he said.
Asked who he thought would be good candidates to fill the roster of a new bipartisan gang, he declined to name specific senators. But he did provide a profile of such a hypothetical roster, which sounds a lot like both gangs’ mix of veterans, moderates and even some members of leadership.
“There’s some people who are in swing states. It’s good politics for them. Some people are institutionalists. Hopefully, we can fill in the gap,” he said.
On the Democratic side, that could include senators like Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, Byrd’s successor, who has made a point of reaching across the aisle and waded into the politically dangerous territory of gun control legislation in 2013 with Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, R-Pa.
Some of his GOP colleagues that fit that profile though, have already come out in support of their leadership’s position to shut down any hearing or vote on a Supreme Court pick this year. Toomey — as well as Sens. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Rob Portman of Ohio and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, for instance — are in tough re-election races in swing states that favor Democrats in presidential cycles like the current one. But they are supporting the party line at this point.
For someone who wants to see the see the chamber compromise, that’s bad news.
“The moral high ground is a shaky place to be in the Senate when it comes to judges,” Graham warned his Judiciary Committee colleagues, adding, “The Senate’s evolving in a very bad way.”
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