In a widely anticipated but still significant development, Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Chuck Grassley indicated he would exercise his prerogative under the seniority system to take the gavel of the Finance Committee upon the retirement in January of its current chairman, Orrin Hatch. That opens the way for the next-highest-ranking Republican on Judiciary, South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham, to take over that committee.
Graham, of course, became a national villain, or hero, depending on your outlook, for his decidedly non-judicious demeanor during the committee’s final hearings on Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination, serving up a wildly partisan tirade aimed, some thought, at shoring up his conservative and Trumpian street cred back home and in Washington. Even if he behaves, his acerbic style will offer a sharp contrast to Grassley’s stumbling-and-mumbling approach.
At this particular moment in history, Graham’s role will transcend the obvious task of shepherding Trump’s judicial nominees through their confirmation hearings. He has jurisdiction over the Justice Department, and with it the Mueller investigation, which he has periodically said he wants to protect from administration meddling. But Graham also would be in a position to promote some of Trump’s pet projects, most notably an investigation of the FBI, as he suggested earlier this week:
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) on Tuesday said he would “totally” look into the FBI’s handling of its investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s emails if he becomes chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“The oversight function will be very much front and center,” Graham said in an appearance on CNN.
Speaking of oversight: Graham could also be the GOP point man in dealing with a host of issues involving the Trump administration that are certain to be raised by House’s new Democratic proprietors. With his own reelection pending in 2020 in a state where loyalty to Trump is paramount, it’s unlikely that he will exercise much of the independence or bipartisanship for which he was known back in the days when he was John McCain’s chief Senate sidekick.
It is possible that Graham will use his chairmanship to promote the cautious bipartisan criminal-justice reform initiatives Grassley supported, which have been given something of a green light by the White House after years of delays. And in theory, he could seek to revive the idea of comprehensive immigration reform that he supported during the Bush and Obama administrations. But that would mean bucking his president and his party, which has moved hard right on that and so many other subjects, and it’s pretty clear Lindsey Graham has decided to be a team player for the foreseeable future.