Graham, DeMint approach politics in their own ways

Gen. Martin Dempsey (left), commander of the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, greets Graham in the Dirksen Senate Office Building. “I’ve sort of been adopted by a bunch of people up here,” Graham says. “... Washington is a college town. You’re up here during the week, and you go home on weekends.”

WASHINGTON -- Considering that U.S. Sens. Lindsey Graham and Jim DeMint are conservative Upstate Republicans, South Carolina's two senators are anything but a matched set as they increasingly emerge on the national stage.

Consider how they spent a recent day in March.

Graham leaves lunch with Senate conservatives a bit early to meet with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. As he walks briskly through the underground corridors connecting the Capitol with the Senate office buildings, he answers a string of questions about everything from the unrest in Egypt to reforming Social Security.

He checks with his staff about where exactly he and Clinton will meet. In a land of BlackBerrys, Graham, 55, whips out an old flip phone, joking that it was made in 1912.

After their private meeting, Graham questioned Clinton publicly, beginning by praising her work ethic and then asking a series of questions about Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and a possible no-fly zone over that country, extracting oil from oil sands in Canada, and the potential joint military bases in Afghanistan after 2014.

His scattershot approach stands in contrast with DeMint, who questioned Clinton earlier in the day at a separate hearing.

DeMint, 59, asked her about what the State Department was doing to monitor religious persecution in other countries -- fully aware that Pakistani Minority minister Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian politician, had recently been assassinated in Islamabad.

Clinton said the issue was important to her and that the State Department is tracking it "and we're trying to make it a major part of our human rights reporting."

DeMint later says that while Clinton's answers seemed genuine, he found them too general. He has heard from constituents who are missionaries and have seen religious persecution firsthand.

"They've had friends killed, and they don't think we're doing anything about it. That's what we're trying to change," he says. "We're not going to address this problem until we measure it, until we have evidence that we can present to these countries. This is not a social issue.

It's not really separate from our political and economic interests."

Rising profiles

Graham is accustomed to the limelight, having appeared on national news shows more than most other senators except the chambers leadership and possibly Sen. John McCain of Arizona. Graham says his colleagues sometime rib him about this.

"The truth is if they were invited, they'd love to go," he says. "If you're in politics and you don't want to be on TV talking about the political issues of the day, you're in the wrong business. Very few senators say, 'Tell "Meet the Press" to quit calling me.' "

Graham says the networks seek him out not simply because he often takes a bipartisan approach, but because his background as a lawyer has trained him to speak in sound bites.

"What I try to do is take a complicated issue and put a phrase to it that will get repeated. That's a successful show -- to say something that makes it into the newscast that evening, that makes it into news articles that get your point of view in," he says.

Increasingly, DeMint is sought out, too. Several hours after he questions Clinton, he strolls to the ornate rotunda of the Russell Senate Office Building and gives an interview with FOX News about the fracas in Wisconsin.

"The problem we have here is the relationship between the Democratic Party and the unions, where the unions help elect the Democrats and then effectively, when they're negotiating salaries and benefits, the unions are sitting on both sides of the table," he says.

DeMint also talks about his vote earlier in the day for a two-week continuing spending resolution, which cut $4 billion.

"It's just $4 billion, but in some ways, it's a psychological victory," he says. "I think in my 12 years in Congress, this is the first time we've ever voted to cut anything."

DeMint did not have much of a national profile until 2007, when he was one of the first senators to speak up against an immigration solution that then-President George W. Bush, congressional Democrats and even Graham were behind. The legislation eventually fell apart.

The birth of the tea party movement in early 2009 further bolstered DeMint's national profile, particularly as he raised money for several conservative Senate candidates, five of whom won last fall and took office this year.

"I didn't realize how burdened I felt until this year, when I got some support," he says. "I felt every day, I had to wake up and stop all the bad stuff that Obama was sending down almost by myself, even criticized by my own party. ... It's taken a big load off of me, and it's given me a team to work with."

DeMint, who has bristled at his reputation as "Senator No," also is relishing the U.S. House now being in Republican hands, a move that places the Democrat-controlled Senate in the position of saying "No."

Graham has been more willing to reach across the aisle. While he's not trying to become the senator he replaced, the late Strom Thurmond, he does see Thurmond as a role model. "To say he wasn't conservative would be a misstatement of the record, (but Democrat) Joe Biden spoke at his funeral. I like that model, quite frankly. I like mixing it up. I like getting in a good partisan fight -- it gets the juices flowing -- but I never want to destroy my ability to get things done for my state or the nation as a whole.

"I got some good advice from Strom," he adds. "He said these big things take a long time, and you've got to try and fail before you get them right. That was pretty good advice. Anything big is going to take bipartisanship, but you have to go through several different combinations."

Graham says he's got good ratings from the National Rifle Association, pro-life groups and other conservatives, adding, "The thing that gets me in trouble sometimes is that I'm willing to find common ground on immigration and energy. It comes with the job."

On the fence in 2012

Neither Graham nor DeMint are expected to be on the ballot next fall, but that doesn't mean it won't be a busy political year for them.

Hailing from South Carolina, which will hold the first in the South GOP presidential primary, both can influence which Republican will take on Obama next year.

But unlike 2008, when DeMint backed former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney as Graham helped his Senate ally McCain to the nomination -- both currently remain on the fence.

DeMint plans to go to the Iowa caucus, which will help establish 2012 front-runners, and is not sure whom he will endorse. "I think it's just too early. What I'll stress a lot is we should be looking for a candidate who will tell us the truth: that the federal government has to do less rather than more and that freedom hasn't failed in America. We've failed to let it work."

Despite his recent comments to CNN's Anderson Cooper, DeMint has not completely ruled out running for president himself, but he calls the idea a last resort, noting the next president will be as popular with Democrats as Wisconsin's governor -- if the next president cuts spending like he feels it should be cut.

"If you've got a government that's bankrupt, $14 trillion in debt, there's really no room for liberal philosophy, which is how can we do more with government. There's only room for: How can we pull back and wean all these special interests from government funds and programs?" he says.

If that sounds like presidential talk, DeMint reaffirms he has no plans to run. "This is late in the game. I have not raised a dollar running for president, so it would take an extraordinary set of circumstances for me to run," he says.

Graham says Obama is beatable because unemployment might remain high and because of dissatisfaction with health care reform and the stimulus package. But he doesn't see a candidate he is willing to work for like he worked for McCain last time.

"I'm looking for a conservative who's electable, and to be electable, you don't have to abandon conservatism, you've just got to sell it to the independent swing voter like Ronald Reagan did," Graham says.

Deepening the port

While Graham and DeMint both hope to cut spending, they simultaneously are working to ensure South Carolina gets a big chunk of federal money to deepen Charleston Harbor to 50 feet.

They're working several angles. Graham is trying to arrange a sum to deepen East Coast ports and have the specific ones chosen on a merit system based on where the federal government can get the best bang for its buck. Charleston's harbor, located relatively close to the Atlantic, would fare well in such a system, he says.

"I love trying to solve problems. This port thing has been a terrific and frustrating exercise," he says.

Frustrating in part because the current system of selecting ports leans heavily on earmarks, a practice now under attack by tea party Republicans, including DeMint.

DeMint's approach is to reform the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

"We should not have to have politically directed earmarks for the Corps to do its job, and it hasn't been doing its job," he says. "We've known for over 10 years we needed to deepen our port."

DeMint says the recent port debate -- one where some claim Charleston is falling behind because of DeMint's opposition to earmarks -- has been "particularly annoying."

"All these newspapers that I could never get interested in the port before have now decided that the port is the most important thing and I'm the one holding it up," he says. "But it's something I've been working on a lot. I guess the bottom line was we could no longer bankrupt our country at the expense of our parochial interest, no matter how important it was, so we had to stop everything and do it right."

When work is over

As the Senate wraps up its day, Graham joins six other senators for dinner.

"I've sort of been adopted by a bunch of people up here," he says, noting he recently had dinner with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor (an Obama appointee that Graham voted to confirm).

"What time you have for yourself up here is limited, but it's kind of like being in college with your buddies," he says. "Washington is a college town. You're up here during the week, and you go home on weekends."

Graham, who lost his parents at an early age and adopted his younger sister so she could receive his military benefits, is somewhat of an oddity here: a single senator.

"Having a family is something that I miss, quite frankly," he says. "You just wake up and you're 55 and you can't believe it. But in terms of doing this job, it would be very difficult."

Particularly in keeping his schedule, where he also ranks among the most traveled senators, at least as far as visits to Iraq and Afghanistan.

DeMint often ends his days more quietly. If he's not going to a fundraiser for a fellow conservative, he heads to the gym and then back to the boarding house he shares with several other senators and congressmen.

There, in the quiet of his room, he often takes time to write. His third book, "The Great American Awakening: Two Years that Changed America, Washington and Me" is due out later this year.

"It goes through a little bit of the painful last two years," he says. "I just like to write. It some ways, it organizes my thinking. It allows me to kind of integrate policies and themes.

"I don't look for things to do up here," he says. "I take the first plane out after the last vote. My life is back home. My grandkids are in Charleston, so we're constantly traversing the state. We never moved the family up here."

DeMint has said he doesn't expect to run again when his current term expires in five years, but as with his possible presidential run, he doesn't rule it out.

Instead, he cites Proverbs 16:9, "People make their plans, but God determines their steps."

Graham already plans to run again in 2014.

"I believe I'm getting better at my job every day. It's like an athlete. The more you do this, the better you get," he says. "Senators Thurmond and (Fritz) Hollings were up here a long time, and they were able to help our state. I'm not focused on staying here forever. I'm focused on trying to be a player while I'm here."