WASHINGTON — If U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham wants to know why his foreign aid bill has stalled in the Senate, he need only look in the direction of the junior senator from South Carolina.
In an extraordinary clash between Republican senators from the same state, U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint forced Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to postpone consideration last week of a $53.3 billion foreign aid bill, backed by Graham.
DeMint demanded that the bill be debated by itself and not combined with other spending measures.
“I respect and work well with Lindsey, and I share his goal to secure our homeland and advance America’s interests abroad,” said DeMint, a Greenville Republican. “But I will continue to object to out-of-control spending and insist we have a full debate on every spending bill.”
DeMint’s move was a setback for Graham, the senior Republican on the Senate appropriations “foreign ops” subcommittee that funds aid to other countries, U.S. embassies and other State Department operations.
Graham, a Seneca Republican, has criticized GOP presidential candidates and other party leaders for what he describes as a growing isolationism that repudiates the muscular foreign policy of President Ronald Reagan.
“Increasingly, United States assistance, which accounts for about 1 percent of federal spending, is national-security related,” Graham said. “The assistance provided in the bill reflects our national-security priorities.”
The unusual dispute between the two S.C. senators over foreign aid reflects a broader divide within the Republican Party over U.S. priorities overseas and how deeply federal spending should be cut.
DeMint, who worked with fellow U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., to block the foreign aid bill, said it “wastes over $1 billion on global-warming initiatives in other countries.”
Graham, who partnered with Democratic senators in late 2009 and into last year in a failed bid to advance climate-change legislation, doesn’t view that spending as a waste.
Graham, a military lawyer who has been on active duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, said those wars and the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks show the dangers of U.S. disengagement from the world.
Backing of military
As a member of the Armed Services Committee, Graham has met with opposition leaders behind the Arab Spring pro-democracy revolts roiling the Middle East.
He also has established close ties with Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, who sends him on secret missions abroad, and with CIA Director David Petraeus, the retired general who commanded U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“The biggest supporters of (foreign aid) programs are our military leaders,” Graham said. “They realize this is an essential piece in protecting our own nation.”
DeMint — dubbed Senator Tea Party for his ultraconservative views and hardball tactics — represents the ascendant wing of the GOP whose members see the United States as being on the cusp of economic catastrophe due to unsustainable federal debt, a threat that they say dwarfs foreign threats.
“America is $15 trillion in debt, and we’re headed to bankruptcy unless we rethink our spending priorities in every area, and that absolutely includes re-evaluating all foreign aid,” DeMint said.
“It’s simply outrageous that Congress wants to raise taxes while at the same time we’re increasing spending on foreign operations by 10 percent over the last year.”
Last year, before Graham joined the Appropriations Committee, Congress approved $48.3 billion for foreign operations in the 2011 fiscal year that ended Sept. 30.
Graham and U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Senate foreign operations subcommittee, are pushing a bill that would spend $53.5 billion in the current fiscal year.
“Our military leaders make a very compelling case these programs are worthwhile and cost-effective,” Graham said. “I share their view. I know our economy is under strain, but we cannot afford to disengage from the world, particularly during dangerous times like these.”
Graham said the measure makes foreign aid contingent on other nations acting in accord with pivotal U.S. interests.
“The legislation places new conditions on aid to Pakistan, Egypt and the Palestinians,” he said. “We’re no longer going to write blank checks. We’re also increasingly conditioning our aid on governments rejecting terrorism, and embracing free and fair elections.”
When the foreign-aid bill will re-emerge on the Senate floor is anybody’s guess.
The Senate took up a massive defense authorization bill Thursday before adjourning for the weekend and a weeklong break over Thanksgiving.
When lawmakers return to Washington, Congress likely will be consumed by the effort to reduce the deficit by at least $1.2 trillion over a decade, as required by the August law that raised the federal debt ceiling.
Meanwhile, Graham minimized his differences with DeMint.
Graham said he also would like the Senate to return to its former practice of debating and voting on appropriations bills one by one, instead of passing temporary measures that fund the government for short periods.
“Jim and I are both frustrated about the way the Senate is doing its business,” Graham said. “These are tough fiscal times. We ought to be looking for areas of the government we can cut back and duplicative programs we could consolidate.
“But the process we’re using right now has no rhyme or reason, outside of allowing members of the Senate to duck taking tough votes.”