Graham Is Pivotal on Two High-Profile Stages

South Carolinian Is Positioned to Have Outsized Influence on Military Leadership, Supreme Court Pick

Posted June 25, 2010 at 5:32pm

Sen. Lindsey Graham once again finds himself positioned to influence major national issues as simultaneous hearings begin this week on a Supreme Court pick and the nomination of a new U.S. military commander in Afghanistan.

The South Carolina Republican sits on both the Judiciary Committee, where hearings start this week to confirm Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court, and the Armed Services Committee, which will sign off on Army Gen. David Petraeus’ nomination.

The two high-profile confirmations are tailor-made for the outspoken and independent-minded Senator’s background and expertise as a private practice attorney and military lawyer who still serves as a colonel in the Air Force Reserve.

“Welcome to my world. Every day’s interesting,” Graham told reporters Thursday. “I have to pinch myself. It is a wonderful opportunity to represent my state. And, I think my background on the military side will hopefully help me ask good questions. I love being a lawyer — I love the law, I like politics, I love the law — I want to challenge this judge.”

On national security, Graham is joined at the hip with Armed Services ranking member John McCain (R-Ariz.). The two Senators are personally close, and they are tightly aligned with Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) on matters relating to terrorism and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, providing a particularly strong conservative point of view on those issues on the committee.

Graham is far from shy about speaking his mind or offering a money quote to the Capitol press corps. From his position as a member of the bipartisan gang of 14, a group of Senators that formed in 2005 to defuse a partisan impasse over President George W. Bush’s judicial nominees, to his flirtations with Democrats on energy and immigration reform, Graham often finds himself at the center of major policy debates.

On national security, his alignment with McCain means that his positions are usually in the GOP mainstream, given that the minority conference considers the Arizona Republican to be a leader on such issues.

McCain described Graham as very knowledgeable and said his Air Force service as a military lawyer, constant travel to the Middle East and relationships with the players in the region lend Graham credibility on a wide range of such issues.

“He’s credentialed in the eyes of his colleagues, and again, he’s very eloquent,” McCain said.

“Maybe that has to do with the fact that he’s a jerk lawyer,” the Arizona Senator quipped. “But he’s extremely eloquent.”

[IMGCAP(1)]Judicial and legal matters are among those where Graham most often finds himself outside the party mainstream and where fellow Republican Senators view him as a wild card.

Graham usually mitigates the potential for internal GOP friction by giving his leadership a heads up when he at times joins with Democrats on judicial confirmation votes or similar issues. Last year, Graham was the only Republican on the Judiciary Committee to vote to report out the nomination of now-Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

As a result of his expertise and his smooth internal politicking, Graham has managed to maintain the respect of his more conservative colleagues. Judiciary ranking member Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) called Graham a “valuable member” of the committee, adding: “I’m glad he’s with us.”

“Lindsey makes up his own mind. He gives a lot of deference to the president’s nominations. He’s made that clear that a president ought to have reasonable opportunity to appoint who he’d like,” Sessions said. “But he is clearly one of the most effective examiners of witnesses and one of the most articulate members of the committee. And, he always has something interesting and fun to say, too.”

Graham expects to fire tough questions during both the Petraeus and Kagan confirmation hearings.

But with a quick, bipartisan sign-off on Petraeus predicted in Armed Services, it’s Kagan’s Judiciary hearing that could afford the second-term, 54-year-old South Carolina Republican the greatest opportunity to influence events.

The Senator noted the unique timing of the two hearings starting the same week and said he felt fortunate to have a chance to weigh in on issues of such major national significance. Graham attributed his position to good timing and the coincidence that both hearings play to his strengths, yet he emphasized that he does not view himself as the ultimate authority on military and judicial issues.

“The one thing I don’t want to do is oversell,” Graham said. “I’ve been a military lawyer for a very long time. I have a general understanding of how the system works. But I’m smart enough to ask people who are still in the field, so I’ve got a lot of good contacts on the military side who can give me their views and their thoughts. A lot of my colleagues here have a lot of good, real-world experience.”

Graham added: “I’ve got a general idea of what’s right and what’s wrong, and I’m willing to meet people in the middle. That’s a pretty good dynamic, I think, to have for the body.”

Lieberman, who really got to know Graham during McCain’s failed 2008 presidential bid, said he thinks of the South Carolinian as a Republican version of himself. Lieberman, an Independent who caucuses with the Democrats, refers to himself as an Independent Democrat.

The two Senators have collaborated almost seamlessly on national security (along with McCain) and worked together recently with Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) on an energy and climate reform package, although Graham has since dropped his support for that legislation. Lieberman and Graham also worked together on the gang of 14.

“He’s an independent-minded Republican, so if he feels strongly about something that leads him in a different direction than the majority of his caucus, he’ll do what he thinks is right,” Lieberman said.