S.C. Senator Graham Rises as Moderate Republican

Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, has risen as a moderate and was a key player in the compromise on judicial filibusters — to the dismay of many of his constituents.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

One of the key players in this week's compromise on judges was first-term South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham. He represents one of the most conservative states, but in his two years in the Senate, Lindsey Graham has emerged a moderate on several issues, confounding both his party's leadership and a lot of South Carolina voters. NPR's Adam Hochberg reports.

ADAM HOCHBERG reporting:

When Lindsey Graham appeared before reporters this week to announce his support for preserving the filibuster, he made an unusual confession in this era of poll-driven politics.

Senator LINDSEY GRAHAM (Republican, South Carolina): Here's what I know is going to happen now. People at home are going to be very upset at me for a while.

HOCHBERG: Graham's prediction turned out to be accurate. Since the announcement, the South Carolina Republican Party has received hundreds of calls criticizing his decision. A well-known Republican businessman has discussed challenging Graham in the 2008 primary and conservative radio shows throughout the state have been dominated with discussion about the senator's role in the bipartisan compromise.

(Soundbite of "Ralph Bristol Show" on WORD radio)

Mr. RALPH BRISTOL (Host, "Ralph Bristol Show"): Welcome back to the "Ralph Bristol Show" on WORD. We've been talking about him for several days, now we are talking with him. Senator Lindsey Graham, welcome back.

Sen. GRAHAM: Well, thank you, Ralph. And I know I've disappointed some people, but I think it'll work out over time. We'll see.

HOCHBERG: On talk radio station WORD in Greenville, Graham phoned in from Washington to defend himself against charges he's abandoned conservative South Carolina voters.

(Soundbite of "Ralph Bristol Show")

Sen. GRAHAM: I'm firmly convinced that I've done something that will help the Senate, and, if I have to pay a personal price, that's OK. 'Cause I think it's best for the country for the Senate to work together, and we can always go back to the other way of doing business.

HOCHBERG: Graham called his decision to work with Democrats on judicial nominees a cease-fire, an attempt to reduce Senate rancor and forge bipartisanship. But that explanation did little to satisfy callers to the Greenville radio show.

(Soundbite of "Ralph Bristol Show")

Unidentified Caller: I voted for Lindsey Graham and I'm very, very disappointed with the Republican Party as a whole because they've turned their backs totally on us.

Mr. BRISTOL: Did you listen to the interview with Senator Graham in the last half-hour?

Unidentified Caller: Yes, I did. Yes, I did.

Mr. BRISTOL: Did he say anything at all that was convincing to you? Did he...

Unidentified Caller: No, not all.

Mr. BRISTOL: He didn't change your mind at all? OK.

Unidentified Caller: Not at all. Total turncoat.

HOCHBERG: This isn't the first time Graham has shown an independent streak in his brief Senate career. Though the American Conservative Union says he votes their position more than 90 percent of the time, Graham has differed with Republican leaders on several key issues. He distanced himself from President Bush on Social Security; instead, proposing his own plan that raises payroll taxes. He sharply criticized the Pentagon for prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib. And, perhaps, most heinous, for some conservatives, he co-sponsored a veterans' benefit bill with Hillary Clinton. Scott Huffmon is a political scientist at Winthrop University.

Mr. SCOTT HUFFMON (Winthrop University): We throw around the term maverick way too much. It's fun to do, sometimes it's accurate. In his case, it kind of is. He did surprise people when he got there as a senator. They expected someone to come in and help Bush push his agenda through, and that didn't happen.

HOCHBERG: Senator Graham makes no apologies for sometimes bucking his own party, and he says he's confident many South Carolinians support his filibuster position. Last night, at a Republican Party meeting in Rock Hill, South Carolina, Rick Lee was among a handful of GOP activists who said they agreed with the senator.

Mr. RICK LEE (GOP Activist): The Senate and the House have such polarization that the only way you can find resolution without damaging the institution is to find folks in the middle who are willing to say enough's enough. And I think Lindsey and the others did just that.

HOCHBERG: Most Republicans at the meeting, though, made no secret of their disappointment in their senator. Real estate appraiser James Burrell(ph) says no Republican should worry about making peace with Democrats.

Mr. JAMES BURRELL (Real Estate Appraiser): The Senate's been broken for 40 years, in my opinion. The Democrats held control. They did what they wanted to for 40 to 50 years. You cannot compromise with these people.

HOCHBERG: Burrell says his anger also extends to another Republican who supported the filibuster agreement, Arizona Senator John McCain. Five years ago, when McCain ran for president, he won Lindsey Graham's enthusiastic endorsement. Now as Senate colleagues, Graham and McCain have emerged as leaders of what they hope will become a powerful centrist coalition. Adam Hochberg, NPR News, Rock Hill, South Carolina.

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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