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Graham’s U-turns have Senate colleagues fed up: ‘Annoying,’ ‘tiresome’

Republican and Democratic senators who have worked for years with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) are fuming over his decision to oppose a $95 billion defense and foreign aid package.

Architects of the bill saw Graham’s support as crucial to mustering a majority of Republican senators to vote for it and apply as much pressure as possible on Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) to bring it up on the House floor.

With Graham voting no, the bill fell short of that goal even with 22 GOP votes in favor, and now it is considered unlikely to pass the House.

Senators who thought Graham was on their side feel like he pulled the rug out from under them, especially after last year, when he railed on the Senate floor about a budget deal including “not a penny” for the war in Ukraine.

Some saw Graham as making a blatant effort to curry favor with former President Trump, who lobbied senators last week to oppose the package to deny President Biden a political win.

One Democratic senator who was involved in strategizing for the bill said Graham “was supposed to be the guy” who would work to double Republican support for the bill. The senator explained “the way this was supposed to work was they were going to have” 60 votes for the bill, including 10 Republicans, and “he was supposed to bring the second 10” GOP votes, “and then in the last week he became part of the 10 that you couldn’t even count” as possible yes votes.

“He got sucked into the Trump orbit, and he is so zealously about his own self-preservation in South Carolina that he literally would push his mother in front of a train to get to where he needs to be,” the senator added. “I hate to say it because I actually like him.”’

A Winthrop University Poll published in October showed only 30 percent of South Carolina voters approved of Graham’s performance, a rating only 1 percentage point higher than Biden had in the state.

Trump took a shot at his Senate ally in February 2022 by calling him a “RINO” because of differences on whether convicted Jan. 6 protesters deserve presidential pardons.

Graham’s votes against the defense bill exasperated colleagues, given that Graham led a charge on the Senate floor in June to delay action on a deal to raise the debt limit and set caps on defense and nondefense spending because it didn’t include any money for Ukraine.

“Not a penny in this bill to help Ukraine defeat [Russian President Vladimir Putin],” Graham thundered on the Senate floor. “We need to send a clear message to Putin that when it comes to your invasion of Ukraine, we’re going to support your loss. If we don’t do that, then we’re going to snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory.”

Graham raised such hell that he secured a commitment from Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) that they would not let the spending caps deal hold up an emergency defense spending supplemental bill to fund Ukraine.

“To the brave men and women in Ukraine standing up against Russian aggression and in defense of their homeland, help is on the way,” Graham declared on the Senate floor after securing the pledge.

The bill Graham opposed last week included $60 billion for Ukraine, including $19.85 billion to replenish U.S. military weapons provided from the Pentagon’s inventory and $13.8 billion to enable Ukraine to purchase weapons and munitions from U.S. industry.

It also provided $4.8 billion for the Indo-Pacific region to deter Chinese aggression toward Taiwan.

Administration officials have warned senators that Ukraine’s military supplies have dwindled so much that its forces can fire only one artillery shell for every four fired by Russian forces. NATO responded late last month by signing a $1.2 billion contract to provide tens of thousands of artillery rounds to ease the shortfall.

Graham has pointed to his concerns about the border in explaining his stance. But a Republican senator who worked on putting together the defense package said Graham’s shifting stance left him and other colleagues spinning, even given those concerns.

“I don’t know what he’s doing, because Lindsey is a super smart guy. I don’t know whether he’s just trying to cover for Trump or what he’s doing, but I find it worrisome. He’s just so all over the map. It’s worrisome. I don’t know what to do,” the senator said.

The senators who spoke to The Hill requested anonymity to frankly express their frustrations with Graham while not giving him a reason to retaliate against their criticisms.

Graham defended his opposition to the bill as a principled stand to pressure President Biden and Democrats to place hard caps on the number of migrants crossing the border, telling colleagues on the floor: “The reason I’m going to vote no to this package is because I’ve been telling people for months now that I want to help Ukraine, I want to help Israel, I want to help Taiwan, but we’ve got to help ourselves first.”

He stood his ground during a trip to Eagle Pass, Texas, on Friday.

“If you come here enough, you learn, and the best people to learn from are the ones who live here every day tasked with doing the job in the local community. So what did I learn? I learned that the Senate bill had some good things in it but was inadequate to the task more than I thought,” he told reporters.

“Basically, they told me that the Senate bill without ‘Remain in Mexico’ changes things only on the margin,” he said, referring to the Trump-era policy of requiring migrants to wait south of the border while their asylum claims are processed.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who worked with Graham in June to secure the commitment from Senate leaders to allow an emergency supplemental to reach the floor, was more diplomatic than her colleagues but admitted she was surprised by his opposition.

“I was surprised at his vote … but he felt very strongly that the border provisions should have been included and were not strong enough as negotiated by the bipartisan group,” she said.

Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), who chairs the State Department, Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee, expressed surprise and dismay at Graham’s votes against funding for Ukraine.

“Sen. Graham has long been a vocal supporter of Ukraine funding and it is my hope that in the end he will robustly support Ukraine funding,” he said. “I’ve been very surprised at how quickly his positions on border security and national security have shifted, and we’ll have to see how this all turns out.”

Other senators on both sides of the aisle balked at Graham’s explanation for opposing the emergency defense bill when it was initially paired with border security reforms. They noted Graham had admitted the negotiators who crafted the border deal “produced a good product on asylum” and “good stuff on parole.”

Graham’s colleagues who backed the bill thought he should have appreciated the progress made on giving the current and future administrations more power to turn back migrants with illegitimate asylum claims, given his deep experience on immigration policy as a key member of the Gang of Eight, which drafted the Senate’s comprehensive immigration reform bill in 2013.

A second Republican senator who requested anonymity noted that Graham’s vote against the bill chafed fellow members of the Appropriations Committee, because he serves as the top Republican on the State, Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee, which is tasked with putting together foreign aid bills.

“Lindsey gets a pass on so many things because the answer is, ‘That’s just Lindsey.’ But that doesn’t seem like that’s a sufficient answer,” said the GOP senator. “He’s so mercurial.”

“It’s annoying. It’s tiresome,” the lawmaker added. “Generally when a person gets to a place, you expect him to stay there.”

“This is out of character for the issues he has championed for a long time, issues that he and [the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.)] worked on side by side. Lindsey’s always been thought of [as] the national defense, military defense, foreign affairs [leader], and he’s decided to take different path,” the source added.

Graham’s opposition to the package was so striking that he announced on the Senate floor that he would drop off as the co-leader of bipartisan Senate delegation to a gathering of NATO allies at the Munich Security Conference.

His decision to skip the trip tacitly acknowledged the tensions that have built up between the South Carolina senator, who has become a staunch ally of former President Trump, and advocates for backing Ukraine in its two-year war against Russia.

Instead of meeting with U.S. allies in Europe to discuss Ukraine, Graham traveled with Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) to the Texas border.

Asked about his decision to skip the Munich conference to visit Eagle Pass, he told reporters: “It’s where I need to be. I need to be on our border talking about an invasion of our country.”

“Nothing’s changed regarding me, Ukraine, Taiwan and Israel,” he insisted. “If Putin wins in Ukraine, I think he keeps going, and you could have a fight with NATO, and China would certainly sees that as a signal of weakness. I get all of that.”

Graham’s trip drew a rebuke from Schumer, who worked closely with him to pass comprehensive immigration reform through the Senate more than 10 years ago.

“It’s very nice that Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott are taking a field trip to the border. But their actions speak louder than words,” Schumer said in a statement.

Graham pushed back on that criticism.

“Here’s what I would say to Schumer and McConnell,” he said. “If you don’t have a House strategy, nothing works. And President Trump came out and said that make the aid a loan, not grant. If that’s what it takes to get it through the House, count me in.”

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