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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.

"It's so cynical, shockingly, that they would pass up a once-in-a-generation chance to pass climate-change reform in order to curry more favor with a certain voting bloc," said GOP consultant John Weaver, a longtime friend and adviser to Graham.

"To put immigration in there first is akin to strapping dynamite to your body and running through a forest fire," Weaver said, noting the intensity of the immigration issue.

Some Democrats wondered privately whether Graham's desire to delay consideration of immigration reform is a favor on behalf of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a friend. The onetime GOP presidential nominee is locked in a taut primary fight, and a Washington debate over immigration legislation is the last thing he wants right now. But Weaver, who is close to both men, insisted that Graham is not doing McCain's bidding.

Instead, the weekend letter to Obama may have been aimed at the anti-immigration wing of Graham's own party, which has become increasingly vocal in accusing him of being a traitor to the GOP. Republican Party committees in two South Carolina counties have rebuked Graham in the past six months, joining a chorus of conservative critics who consider him a "RINO" -- Republican in name only.

"I guess the word 'maverick' is out of vogue. But I would say he's courageous," Weaver said. "He's willing to risk political capital in order to solve problems. Everybody scratches their head about it, because such a trait is unusual."

Democrats and Republicans alike agree that a compromise on climate-change legislation -- while still elusive -- is much further along than one on immigration, an issue without even a bill to discuss.

Media reports late Monday suggested that Reid may bow to that reality; he told reporters that the Senate will take up whichever bill is ready first.

On terrorism, Graham has been the lead -- and, for the most part, only -- lawmaker from either party working with the White House to reach a comprehensive deal on closing the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Graham, a former military lawyer, would like to see the facility closed, but only if the administration sets up a system for trying accused terrorists in military commissions rather than in civilian courts. He vociferously opposed the decision late last year to try self-declared Sept. 11 planner Khalid Sheik Mohammed in federal court in lower Manhattan, saying it would be a deal-breaker for any future negotiations.

The administration has since backed down, but the talks between Graham and the White House appear stalled: It is not clear whether Graham could bring along any Republican votes even if the two sides reached a deal.

Staff writer Anne E. Kornblut contributed to this report.

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