EDITOR’S NOTE: U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., played a central role in the Senate’s immigration bill, recently traveled to Afghanistan and is gearing up for re-election next year. He talked recently with reporter Robert Behre.
P&C: Do you have any reservations about the final version of the Senate immigration bill?
Graham: “No. I’m very pleased with it. I think it’s a good solution to a hard problem. If you are really serious about border security, we have done everything short of militarizing the border. Any criticism about border security, I think that’s just not justified.”
P&C: If the House fails to pass anything on immigration, what do you see as the consequences?
Graham: “I think the country is ready for immigration reform. Seventy percent of the people believe that a pathway to citizenship — if they have to get in the back of the line, pay a fine, learn English — is good. I think the consequences for the country (of doing nothing) are terrible. It’s de facto amnesty. ... And the most unfair thing for the American worker is to have an illegal immigrant being paid under the table in cash. ”
P&C: The Republican Party still seems at war with itself about whether to push the country in a conservative direction or seek compromise. How do you see that conflict resolving itself?
Graham: “From a political point of view, if we’re seen as Republicans not being practical or interested in immigration reform, it will hurt us. ... It’s a hard problem. The good news is that unlike 2007, most Republicans accept some form of legalization. It’s just a matter of when you do it and how you do it. Self-deportation, the idea that 11 million people are going to go to jail or leave the country voluntarily, is really sort of behind us as a party. The rhetoric we’re using about immigration is so much better than it was last time, so I’m very pleased.”
P&C: You’ve attracted at least one primary challenger next year and may face more. How has that affected your approach to your work?
Graham: “It hasn’t at all. Doing nothing (on immigration) is amnesty and terrible for our economy. ... You’ll never have a bill that fixes immigration that is not bipartisan, so I think what I’m doing is not only necessary, I think it’s good politics. If you just stand around and talk about what you won’t do, you’ll end up having the old system forever.”
P&C: Do you feel politically vulnerable, even though you’ve had success raising money?
Graham: “I feel like I’ve been a good senator and am running a good campaign. ... At the end of the day, I’m not going to win because I’ve got the most money. I’m going to win, I believe, because I’m a good senator, that I’ve addressed the needs of our state, that I’ve been a solid conservative who also wants to solve problems. I’m a Ronald Reagan conservative who believes if you get 80 percent of what you want, that’s a pretty good day. And I believe that’s where South Carolina is at.”
P&C: What’s the next issue on the horizon that you think will lend itself to a “Gang of Eight” approach where you work with Democrats?
Graham: “Budget reform: flattening out the tax code, making it simpler and fairer, reducing some deductions that are given away to the few at the expense of the many, and reforming entitlements. Democrats are going to have to agree to reform Medicare and Social Security before they all go broke. Republicans are going to have to agree to reform the tax code. I think that is the next big deal to be done.”
P&C: What is the most important thing for the United States to do as the Egyptian crisis unfolds?
Graham: “I’m hopeful they’ll go back to the polls and that the Egyptian people will reject a radical Islamist approach and send a message to the rest of the Mideast that people want jobs and security. (President Barack) Obama is leading from behind. We’re AWOL. All of our allies are scared to death. All of our enemies are emboldened. We’re just having no influence. Egypt has to get back on the road to democracy. We can’t let this be the last chapter in the new Egypt.”
P&C: The effects of the sequester don’t appear to be as dire as Obama portrayed them. What harm, if any, do you see from the sequester?
Graham: “Go talk to the Department of Defense. They’re devastating. One-third of fighter aircraft that we have available in this country are grounded. ... We’re having to reduce hazardous duty pay. When I was in Afghanistan, weapons training was being rationed. This is having a devastating effect on our readiness in the military. ... If we don’t get the Defense Department in better shape, it’s going to devastate our military when we need it most. ... You’re going to hear more and more from me about what we’re doing to our military.”
P&C: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has been talking about limiting the power of the filibuster.
Graham: “The Democrats are threatening to change the rules of appointments to make it a simple majority, and I think that would be a disaster. I didn’t think it was a good idea when we were in charge to change the rules, and I don’t think it’s a good idea for them to change their rules. ... Obamacare is a classic example of why it’s a bad idea to pass big things on party-line votes. ... You’ve got a bunch of liberal Democrats throwing a fit because we’re not signing off on Obama’s executive appointments. What the Democrats are proposing — making a simple majority for accepting appointments — it won’t end there.”
P&C: Do you regret that Congress was unable to do anything regarding gun control, even pass the limited changes you supported?
Graham: “Yes, yes. I think it’s silly when we couldn’t do something when we had 85 to 90 votes for my bill. ... I think gun control became a political campaign issue rather than solving a real problem. How many people in this country would really want the lady in Charleston (Alice Boland, who legally bought a gun even though she had pleaded not guilty but mentally ill in federal court) to be able to buy a gun? Count me in for background checks. I just want them to be effective. And what was being offered was an ineffective solution to a real problem.”
P&C: Any idea when you may try again?
Graham: “I’m going to try again if they want. What kind of system is it that will allow somebody who has been adjudicated not guilty by reason of insanity (threatening to shoot the president) to be able to buy a gun? That’s crazy. I hope it comes up again.”
P&C: How would you describe the impact that Tim Scott has had in the Senate so far?
Graham: “He’s well-received by everybody. He’s such a nice man. He’s thoughtful, courteous. When he speaks, people listen. He’s got a hell of a personal story. Tim has an unlimited future in politics because he’s a principled conservative but one heck of a nice guy. And personal relationships matter in the Senate.”
P&C: The Obama administration has said the United States might pull out of Afghanistan earlier than expected. What concerns, if any, do you have about that?
Graham: “It’s probably the worst decision that any president could possibly make, given the times in which we live. I’m frustrated with (Afghanistan President Hamid) Karzai, but Afghanistan is not Karzai. If we left Afghanistan with no troops, our general and ambassador told me and other members of the Senate last week that within two or three years, the country would fall apart, go back into civil war and it would be disastrous for Pakistan. ... We’re not going to be judged by the day we left Afghanistan but by what we left behind.”
P&C: Has the recent presidential election in Iran, won by moderate Hassan Rouhani, given you reason for optimism?
Graham: “No, if (Rouhani) was a game changer, he would not have been on the ballot. This guy was the nuclear negotiator for the Iranians in 2004 ... and he bragged about when he convinced the West to back off sanctions that they advanced their nuclear program — that they did more building up their nuclear program when they were working with the West. ... I don’t trust him as far as I can throw him. ... He talks one way and does something else. He’s not in charge. The ayatollahs are in charge.”