The Education Of Senator Lindsey Graham

As a senator, the former House GOP firebrand is embracing compromise

Back in the early days of the Republican Revolution, Lindsey O. Graham saw himself as the tip of the sword. In 1997 the young representative from South Carolina helped lead a revolt against House Speaker Newt Gingrich, for, among other sins, being too quick to cut a budget deal with President Bill Clinton. The coup failed, but Graham survived to scold again. In 1998 he helped manage the House's impeachment of Clinton.

That sealed Graham's reputation as a conservative firebrand and helped him land the Senate seat held for a half-century by Strom Thurmond. As a freshman senator, he's still shaking up the status quo while trying to make a name for himself as a serious legislator. "The older I get, the more pressure I feel to have my time here mean something," Graham says. "It would be very nice if Lindsey Graham, impeachment boy, could also be thought of as a problem solver."

So Graham is reaching across the aisle. He has become a key player in the effort to find a bipartisan resolution to the Great Social Security Debate. Soon, he'll propose a safety net for low- and middle-income workers who opt for personal accounts. And his willingness to partially fund the accounts with payroll tax hikes on those making more than $90,000 has generated considerable controversy. Graham is also sponsoring legislation with Senator Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) to boost benefits for reservists and the National Guard. And he is working with Democrats such as California Senator Dianne Feinstein to protect consumers' rights in the face of a GOP push to limit medical and class-action lawsuits. "He's deeply conservative, but he is also willing to defy orthodoxy to get things done," says Marshall Wittmann, a former adviser to Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.).


Graham remains reliably conservative on social issues. But his combination of independence and pragmatism makes him an anomaly in the Senate, which in recent years has become much like the hotbed of bubbling partisanship that he and his fellow revolutionaries created in the House. "He's willing to make political compromises rather than ideological compromises," says Blease Graham, a political scientist at the University of South Carolina (and no relation to the senator). "In politics, sometimes you have to make temporary pacts with the devil when the issue demands it."

Still, Graham's plan to boost Social Security payroll taxes for high-wage workers has him veering far from GOP orthodoxy. And he's not shy about making his case. In December, Graham took his pitch to the conservative Heritage Foundation, where his talk of tax hikes was greeted with lots of grumbling. He also is bluntly warning CEOs that new payroll taxes will be part of any Social Security deal.

To reach an accord, Graham is working with about a half-dozen senators, including Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and senior panel Democrat Max Baucus of Montana. But despite their bipartisan intentions, the participants have not even been able to settle on a description of the problem, much less a solution.

Graham says he learned about Social Security as a young man. His parents, who owned a combination liquor store, pool hall, and restaurant in Seneca, S.C., died within a year of each other when Graham was in his early 20s and his sister was just 13. Graham, now 49, says that without the roughly $600 a month his sister got in survivor's benefits, "we'd have been sucking wind." To preserve the program, he says, both President George W. Bush and lawmakers should call a truce. "Just park your political differences for the time being," Graham says. "See if you can solve a problem or two."

Not surprisingly, any talk of compromise has some economic conservatives fuming. In a Web posting for the conservative journal Human Events, former GOP Vice-Presidential candidate Jack Kemp says Graham and others "are draining personal accounts of their vitality, jeopardizing Social Security reform, and ultimately endangering the Republican congressional majority."


Graham dismisses such criticism as "just part of politics." And while the White House isn't thrilled with his call for tax hikes, he may not be exactly freelancing. The Administration has been adamant about not raising payroll tax rates but has said nothing about taxing wages above $90,000. "The White House is not at all upset," speculates AARP lobbyist John Rother. "He has at least their tacit support."

Still, the senator is willing to take on the Administration on other issues. For instance, Graham, who serves as an Air Force Reserves judge, was furious at the abuse of Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison -- and he didn't mind saying so. "It was the biggest breakdown of command I've ever seen in my 20 years as a military lawyer," Graham charged during congressional hearings last year.

His ability to get out front on hot issues such as Abu Ghraib, tort reform, and Social Security has raised his profile far higher than that of a typical first-term senator. That, inevitably, has led to talk about an eventual run for the Presidency. For now, Graham laughs off such speculation, and a candidacy in 2008 seems unlikely. But helping to shape a deal on Social Security would position Graham as one of the few young pragmatists in an increasingly ideological Senate.

By Howard Gleckman, with Richard S. Dunham and Lorraine Woellert, in Washington

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