Sen. Lindsey Graham has the White House's ear

By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 27, 2010; 6:50 AM

As the Obama administration confronts the politics around immigration, especially given a new law in Arizona, its hopes for a bipartisan compromise on the broader issue rest with Republican Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.).

But the White House also needs Graham if it wants to pass comprehensive energy legislation this year. And the West Wing's delicate negotiations over the fate of detainees at Guantanamo Bay are being quietly conducted by . . . Lindsey Graham.

It's as if the GOP senator -- who campaigned tirelessly against Obama in the 2008 campaign -- has been awarded the titles of chief negotiator, senior adviser and top strategist in the Obama White House.

"Rahm has a good relationship with him," press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters Monday, noting the frequent meetings between Graham and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. "The president has a good relationship with him. Many folks here do."

On immigration, energy and terrorism, Graham has run hot and cold with the administration, sometimes pleading with officials in private, sometimes cajoling them in public, sometimes lapsing into silence as he seeks to move them.

He has a direct line to Emanuel, and more than once has met with Obama to discuss detention policy. During months of negotiation over energy legislation, Graham and his staff have worked with the White House directly through Emanuel and environmental adviser Carol Browner.

Along with Maine's Republican senators, Susan Collins and Olympia J. Snowe, Graham is one of only a handful of potential votes for Obama and the Democrats in a chamber in which 41 GOP lawmakers can block almost any agenda item. So far, it remains unclear whether Graham will win support among any colleagues on these issues.

But if the soft-spoken and intense senator from South Carolina is a rare Republican willing to cooperate and negotiate with the administration, he's also a cantankerous one. In a blistering letter to Obama over the weekend, Graham threatened to pull out of bipartisan climate change talks if Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) moves to take up immigration reform before the energy legislation.

"This has destroyed my confidence that there will be a serious commitment and focus to move energy legislation this year," Graham wrote. "Moving forward on immigration -- in this hurried, panicked manner -- is nothing more than a cynical political ploy."

White House aides rejected the notion that the letter represents any kind of rift between Graham and Obama. Gibbs suggested that even Graham, who is not up for reelection until 2014, needs to tend to his conservative base in South Carolina once in a while. Gibbs called Graham "courageous," and praised him for his willingness to break bread so often with a White House led by the other party.

"He's taken a lot of heat for -- both in Washington and in South Carolina -- for trying to work on a set of issues in a bipartisan way," Gibbs told reporters Monday.

Republicans close to Graham say his anger over the immigration issue is directed largely at Reid; pursuing immigration reform would please the many Hispanics and union workers in Nevada, the majority leader's state.

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