Graham: GOP offered “capitulation … of dramatic proportions” in lame duck session

Lindsey Graham … partisan tough guy?

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) lashed out at fellow Republicans Tuesday for a “capitulation … of dramatic proportions” to Democrats and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) in the lame-duck Congress.

Graham said Republicans have no one to blame but themselves for allowing ratification of the New START Treaty and other legislation in the period before new lawmakers are sworn in in January.

“When it’s all going to be said and done, Harry Reid has eaten our lunch,” Graham said on Fox News radio. “This has been a capitulation in two weeks of dramatic proportions of policies that wouldn’t have passed in the new Congress.”

When Lindsey Graham accuses the GOP of not standing its partisan ground, well, that’s an occasion worth noting.

On some of these issues, though, the new Congress may not have done anything different.  For instance, on DADT, Republicans would have had to deal with a DoD that has recommended repeal and a federal judiciary champing at the bit to overturn it immediately.  It might have been nice, politically, for a Republican Congress to get the credit for it, but the policy was going to end sooner rather than later — and this allowed Congress to be in front of it.

The same is almost certainly true for START, thanks to the constellation of former Republican diplomats and one President, George H. W. Bush, who have publicly supported it.  The fight this week forced the White House to endorse missile defense and set a marker for hawks to measure Obama’s performance down the road.  Most of the opposition relied, rhetorically at least, on the process of having it jammed through the lame-duck session.

But even with that said, Graham rightly notes that they could have wrung more concessions out of Obama with stronger numbers in the next session:

“They have used the power of the Senate against the minority, and we have, quite frankly, a handful of us have been letting them do it. And a lot of the people who are doing this got beat. And that’s what makes me so upset,” he said. “It makes me disappointed that, with a new group of Republicans coming in, we could get a better deal on almost everything.”

The tax deal was probably the exception, and that was the only issue that actually needed to be resolved before the end of the year.  A deal in 2011 might have been marginally better, but not worth the political cost of having taxes jump up for the few weeks it would have taken to hammer out a new deal.  No such problem existed on DADT and START, which even the Russians said could wait for ratification.  That didn’t make much difference to the outgoing Republicans, who wanted to get their own stamp on these issues before heading into political oblivion. Graham is obviously unhappy about their lack of unity in the final days of the 111th, and given Graham’s own history on immigration reform and Guantanamo Bay, that’s a fairly if darkly humorous turn of events.

Update: The Foreign Policy blog The Cable says that the GOP vote on START was no collapse at all — and in fact was a victory for Republicans:

There were always those in the GOP who were leaning toward supporting the treaty, including Sens. Bob Corker (R-TN), Johnny Isakson (R-GA), Bob Bennett (R-UT), and George Voinovich (R-OH). And there were always those who were never going to support the treaty, including James Inhofe (R-OK), Jim DeMint (R-SC), Kit Bond (R-MO), and others. In the middle, there were also fence-sitters such as Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who appeared willing to go either way on the treaty depending on how the debate played out.

And then there was Jon Kyl (R-AZ), the anointed GOP leader and lead negotiator on New START, who held his true feelings close to his chest throughout the often excruciating process. “If I announce for or against the treaty at this point, nobody would listen to me,” he said on Dec. 15.

The myth of a “collapse” was created by the fact that almost no Republican senators would reveal their positions on New START until the final vote was imminent, except for supporter Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN). The seemingly unified GOP stance on the treaty for most of the autumn and the decision to totally defer to Kyl was a negotiating strategy — one that actually paid off in the end, to the tune of $84 billion dollars, which the Obama administration promised for nuclear modernization. That’s a relative victory, even though many will call the treaty’s ratification a defeat for the GOP.

Basically, the party leadership didn’t whip the vote in this case, but asked the caucus to refrain from publicly declaring until they could win a concession for nuclear modernization.  That strategy worked.  This underscores what I said about START almost certainly passing in the next session of Congress, but also shows that the GOP managed to get something it wanted out of the process — as well as laying down a marker for missile defense.  Given the weak position they held in this session, that’s not a bad outcome altogether.

And if Graham was willing to vote either way on START, then why is he complaining now?