Sen. Lindsey Graham’s bipartisan efforts bog down

For months, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina was one of the few Republicans willing to cross the aisle to work with the Obama administration on controversial issues. Now, he may be the showcase example of why bipartisanship is all but dead in Washington.

In the beginning, Graham’s attempts to find compromises with Obama and Senate Democrats on immigration, energy and closing Guantanamo Bay looked like the best chance for a thaw in Washington’s icy partisan environment. But now, under attack from colleagues and activists in both parties, Graham is threatening to chuck the whole effort.

That potentially dooms prospects for congressional action this year on energy and immigration, as well as the likelihood of widespread cooperation across party lines on most other issues.

From the right, Republican activists in Graham’s home state have heaped scorn and censure on him. Fellow Senate Republicans, including party leaders, have left him to deal with Democrats on his own.

Meanwhile, from the other side, White House officials have criticized Graham’s push to include what would have amounted to a new gasoline tax in the energy bill. Liberals have griped that Graham packed the bill with giveaways to industry; moderates say he hasn’t delivered Republican support for the bill anyway.

Perhaps most important, Graham suddenly finds himself wrestling with the Senate’s top Democrat, Harry Reid of Nevada, over a plan to fast-track the immigration bill. Graham says that by pushing immigration when it isn’t ready and can’t pass, Reid has jeopardized good-faith negotiations on immigration and energy in hopes of scoring cheap political points against Republicans.

So last weekend Graham stepped away from the bargaining table.

Graham’s fellow South Carolinian Republican Sen. Jim DeMint puts it: “No one can deny that Lindsey Graham works in good faith with the other side … if they turn their back on Lindsey, that just shows they’re going to try to do it without us.”

For his part, Graham in a recent interview lamented that both parties’ bases “are getting less and less tolerant of people trying to find common ground.”

“I don’t deserve the praise or the criticism to the extent I get it,” he said. “I’m as frustrated as the average person with why things don’t work better.”

Later, he added: “I enjoy my job. The only reason I enjoy it — the lifestyle of a senator sucks — is the wonderful opportunity for a conservative, right now, to have a say on big issues.… As long as you’re willing to let the other side get something, you can have a real say.”

It’s a long-held philosophy that Graham says he applies only to big issues.

Well before the 2008 election, Graham met with a group of South Carolina utility executives. He told them that regardless of who won the White House, the next president would push to limit greenhouse gas emissions because the U.S. Supreme Court had just ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency could regulate those emissions under the Clean Air Act.

Graham told the executives that he planned to work on an emissions-limiting bill in the Senate, and he asked the executives what they needed from such a bill to protect their customers and their bottom lines.

During the ’08 presidential campaign, Graham served as a top surrogate for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a close Graham friend and an aisle-crossing role model of sorts. On talk shows, Graham often squared off with Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), a top Obama surrogate. After the election, they teamed up, along with Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), to draft a bipartisan energy and climate bill.

In months of negotiations, Graham has pushed the bill steadily to the right, adding provisions to boost nuclear energy and offshore drilling, and reaching out aggressively to oil companies and other business groups.

The approach has won cautious admiration from many industry groups and praise from many Democrats, including White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who is close to Graham.

“Lindsey Graham is hugely helpful,” Kerry said in a recent interview. “He’s hugely articulate. He’s a very smart guy.”

One thing Graham hadn’t brought, before he stepped away from the bargaining table last weekend, was additional Republican support for the climate bill. The same appears to be true of his work with Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) on immigration — even though Graham voted with his GOP colleagues 94% of the time last year on party-line votes, according to a Congressional Quarterly analysis.

At a time when partisan fights have held up a major Wall Street regulation bill, most parties involved in immigration and climate negotiations say neither bill has a chance this year without Graham’s support. Reid seemed to concede as much on Tuesday, telling reporters an energy bill would move before immigration, as Graham has insisted.

It may not be enough. After months of prodding Democrats to move on immigration, Graham now wants Reid to put that bill off until next year.

Asked about that position, Reid replied: “I don’t know why Sen. Graham has decided that he wants out of what he’s doing.”

With that, the situation in Washington returned to normal.