With one word, "yes," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-SC, solidified his maverick status and no doubt fanned the flames of conservative resentment already running high against him, as he voted Tuesday in the Senate Judiciary Committee to support the nomination of Elena Kagan for a seat on the Supreme Court, the lone Republican to do so.
"I'm going to vote for her because I believe this last election has consequences," Graham said of Kagan, adding that her positions are "in the mainstream" and saying it was "not a difficult decision."
As if to underline his conservative status, Graham reminded, "No one tried to beat Obama harder than me, except perhaps John McCain," but Graham said senators shouldn't replace the president's judgment with their own, but merely ask, is the nominee qualified, of good character, and a judge, not a politician? To that, Graham answered yes.
Praising the nominee's stands on war on terror issues, Graham, a military lawyer, awarded perhaps his highest praise to Kagan, saying, "She understands we're at war."
Before he voted, Graham's staff distributed a letter the nominee wrote to the senator, at his request, on a darling of the conservative movement, President Bush's D.C. Circuit Court nominee and potential Supreme Court pick, Miguel Estrada. Democrats enraged Republicans with a years-long filibuster of the nominee, and Estrada ended up withdrawing his name from consideration.
The letter is sure to be seen as an effort by Graham to buttress himself against conservative attacks.
In her letter, Kagan gushes about her law school classmate and decades-long friend, who surprised Republican senators with his own unequivocal support for Kagan's nomination. At her confirmation hearings, Kagan described Estrada as an excellent choice for not only the federal appellate court but also the high court.
"Miguel is an extraordinary lawyer -- deeply knowledgeable about all aspects of our legal system and thoroughly responsible in his legal judgments," Kagan wrote, adding, "He is thoughtful and reflective, subjecting his own beliefs an intuitions, no less than those of others, to the full force of his analytical talents."
Kagan acknowledged the opposition to Estrada but said, "I personally have no doubt...that his great intellect, high accomplishments, and upright character would make him an excellent addition to any federal court."
Graham is no stranger to partisan fights. He has readily taken on the Tea Party when many of his colleagues would not dream of doing so, telling the New York Times recently, “The problem with the Tea Party, I think it’s just unsustainable because they can never come up with a coherent vision for governing the country. It will die out.”
The senator, who still serves annually as a military lawyer in war zones, has taken positions on national security that are normally in the main line of Republican thinking, but even there he strays from the party line. He, along with his closest ally, Sen. John McCain, R-AZ, have called for the closure of the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, and conservatives howled with fury, despite others in the party supporting the closure, most notably, former President George W. Bush.
The senator, who has lamented often that there are no good "Reagan Republicans" anymore, took on what many on the right call "cap and tax", working with the Democrats' 2004 presidential nominee, Sen. John Kerry, D-MA, and his vice presidential nominee Sen. Joe Lieberman, a self-described "independent Democrat," on legislation to curb the emission of greenhouse gases.
Graham eventually withdrew from those talks, citing what he called Democratic leadership's politically-motivated support for the nuclear topic of immigration. Many interpreted Graham's move as either saving his own political skin or possibly even backing away from a controversy that could embroil McCain, who is enduring a challenge from the right by an opponent who is deeply against immigration reform that includes a path to legalization.
McCain, who has shaken off the maverick moniker, worked with Graham and the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-MA, among others in 2005 on a comprehensive immigration reform bill that conservatives decried as "amnesty." That work earned him chorus of boo's at a Republican convention at the time.
His positions on many topics, including judges (he was a founding member of the "Gang of 14" that broke a stalemate on judicial nominees), have made him, at times, the scourge of the right. Nikki Haley, South Carolina's GOP candidate for governor and Tea Party darling, has even called for the senator's censure. And one Tea Party supporter, according to the New York Times, has a prop of Graham with his legs sticking out of a toilet in the back of his truck.
Though he often touts his high scores with the American Conservative Union, other conservative groups, like the Club for Growth rank the senator in dead last, and this group, in particular, has gone after its own for not being on what they say is the right side of the issues.
The vote on Kagan, when taken alone, is not likely to have far-reaching ramifications, politically, for Graham, as he is not up for re-election until 2014, but it is not likely to win him any friends on the right.
Still, Graham showed no signs Tuesday of backing down from his maverick position, admonishing members to be less partisan, particularly when it comes to nominees. "While it is our responsibility to challenge the court, to scrutinize the court, to put the nominee to the test, it is also our obligation to honor elections and protect the court....and making sure that hard-fought elections have meaning."