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Sen. Lindsey Graham to face Sen. Bernie Sanders in debate to boost bipartisanship

Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) and Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina)

Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. will face off in the first in a series of debates designed to reinvigorate the bipartisan and civil spirit of the Senate. File/AP

COLUMBIA — South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham will face off against fellow Sen. Bernie Sanders in the first of a series debates designed to reinvigorate the bipartisan and civil spirit of the Senate.

The June 13 debate, hosted by the Washington, D.C., Bipartisan Policy Center, will be the first of three Oxford-style debates designed to "reintroduce the culture of seeking common ground and consensus that has been the essence of the Senate," the center announced in a May 25 news release.

The first event will take place at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate on the University of Massachusetts Boston campus.

It will be moderated by Fox News anchor Brett Baier, while an additional debate is set to take place in Washington over the summer. Participants for that debate are still pending.

The third event will likely take place at the the Orrin G. Hatch Foundation's headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah — a nod to the unlikely friendship the conservative Hatch and the liberal Kennedy shared during their time in Washington, said Steve Scully, the Bipartisan Policy Center's communications director and onetime C-SPAN anchor.

"They were ideological opposites, and yet they got along," Scully said. "We went to them because they represent what we're looking for — to have that debate, to have that argument — and then find areas you can come together. All of this really dates back to the Hatch-Kennedy relationship."

In many ways, Graham and Sanders present two ideal foils to one another, Scully said. Graham is hawkish on foreign policy while Sanders, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, sought to skim $1 trillion from the Department of Defense budget.

When Sanders proposed the idea felons should vote while running for president in 2019, Graham attacked the notion, calling it the "most extreme idea" he'd heard from a presidential candidate in a long while.

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And where Sanders has attracted national scrutiny on corporate power, Graham has defended it, a dispute that spilled onto the floor of a recent Senate Budget Committee hearing in Washington. 

But the two, who have served nearly 40 combined years in the Senate, have also found common ground, with Graham once praising Sanders in a committee hearing as “one of the most consistent” voices in the U.S. Senate.

The format of the debate, Scully said, will seek to draw out that relationship by giving them extended amounts of time to explain their respective points of view, prod at them and discuss where the two found common ground. 

"This is not a presidential debate," Scully said. "There's not going to be time limits to this. We really want an exchange between the two of them, and we want them to spell out their their point of view." 

The aim of the event, Scully said, is to reinvigorate a belief in the collegial nature of the Senate. Voting data in recent decades has illustrated an increasing partisan divide in the body with legislation often falling victim to gridlock amid a near-perfect partisan split between Democrats and Republicans. 

Both senators, familiar with the national political landscape, their party's beliefs and with each other, are the perfect people to illustrate that, Scully said.

"They're fierce partisans, and we want that," Scully said. "We want a fierce debate over the issues. We thought that these two would be the best to kick off this series." 

Contact Nick Reynolds at 843-834-4267. Follow him on Twitter @IAmNickReynolds.