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Lindsey Graham Defies Party Line as Defense Cuts, GOP Primary Loom

South Carolina’s vocal senator defies his party as defense cuts and his primary loom. By Michelle Cottle.

Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Bright and early Monday morning, Sen. Lindsey Graham will hook up with Republican colleagues John McCain and Kelly Ayotte for a 9 a.m. town-hall meeting at the Center for Advanced Medical Learning and Simulation in Tampa. The topic du jour: the grave threat to U.S. national security posed by sequestration.

The Tampa stop is part of a four-state, two-day road show that the three Armed Services Committee amigos are conducting to spotlight the consequences of—and jack up public fear about—the half-trillion dollars in military spending cuts that lawmakers signed on to last fall after spectacularly failing to hammer out a rational, grownup plan for taming the deficit.

Base closings. Inadequate training. Weapons shortages. Iran running amok. China unchecked. Plague. Pestilence. The return of disco. All this and more will rain down upon our heads, we are told, if someone doesn’t stop the sequestration madness.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, in light of the massive military presence in South Carolina, Sen. Graham has been among the most vocal prophets of doom. Next week’s Tour of Terror is actually his second. Back in May, Graham spent two days dashing around his home state, sounding the alarm. To ensure his message received appropriate attention, he invited Fox News on an exclusive ride-along. At one stop, the senator evoked the specter of a military so weakened it would be “pretty close” to the early days of WWII, where new draftees “were training with broomsticks, and they had cardboard tanks.”

With Republicans queuing up to slam Dems for threatening our military readiness, one might be tempted to dismiss Graham’s anti-sequestration crusade as so much partisan posturing. Unlike many of his fellow conference members, however, Graham is putting some skin in the game by arguing—with increasing vehemence—that raising revenue should be part of the discussion. This is a move that, among certain segments of the GOP, is tantamount to the lawmaker’s calling a presser to announce that he intends to join the Muslim Brotherhood.

To clarify: Graham isn’t calling for new taxes or higher marginal rates. Rather, he wants Congress to close loopholes and increase fees for, say, leasing mineral rights. As he explained in a statement this month, “I believe the best way forward is to follow the Simpson-Bowles roadmap where some of the $109 billion would be offset by increased fees and eliminating tax earmarks that only benefit the few at the expense of the many.”

Senate Dems welcome Graham’s position—even as they express deep pessimism about its viability.

“Everybody takes Senator Graham very seriously. He’s an authority on these issues,” says Adam Jentleson, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. But the enduring problem, he says, “is getting the Republican Senate leadership and the House on board, and finding a way to navigate around the Tea Party.” That, admits Jentleson, nobody really expects to happen.

Indeed, even as last fall’s budget negotiations were in the process of crashing and burning, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell specifically shot down the idea of raising revenue by eliminating tax breaks. And when asked about the possibility of a Graham-style revenue compromise, Michael Steel, spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, brushed off the idea and noted, “The House has already passed a bill to replace the irresponsible Defense sequester with other common-sense spending cuts.”

Still Graham soldiers on, sounding ever more feisty as the fiscal cliff looms. At a sequestration-themed event on Capitol Hill Wednesday, hosted by a trio of conservative think tanks, he took out after his party. “We need to have a discussion among ourselves: Where the hell is the Republican Party going?” he lamented. Expressing dismay at the very emergence of the sequestration agreement, he noted, “in this deal, to try to bring about some fiscal sanity, we had as the penalty what I believe to be the most irresponsible approach to defense in modern times and our Republican fingerprints are on that.”

Such a ringing call for compromise is risky for any Republican in this time of ideological purity tests—all the more so from a lawmaker who hails from the blood-red state of South Carolina and is already reviled in conservative circles for such heresies as supporting comprehensive immigration reform, climate-change legislation, and the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan (a sin for which conservative pundit Michelle Malkin declared Graham “an idiot”). Graham is frequently denounced by his party brethren as a moderate, a sellout, and, most damning of all, a RINO. In 2009, the Charleston County Republican Party's executive committee went so far as to censure Graham for his regular forays across party lines.

He is assumed to be in for a tough primary come 2014. As a state party operative told The Washington Post after the Kagan vote, “It’s no longer a question of ‘if’ but ‘who’ and ‘how many’.”

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The senator’s apostasy on the “revenue” question is unlikely to do much to repair his relationship with the right wing. Then again, at this point maybe the more relevant question is: What has he got to lose?