Politics & Government

Sens. Lindsey Graham, Dianne Feinstein push problem-solving over politics

Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Lindsey Graham called Tuesday for an end to hyper-partisanship, saying the urgent issues the nation faces require lawmakers on Capitol Hill to focus on solving problems instead of assigning blame.

Feinstein, a California Democrat, and Graham, a South Carolina Republican, expressed great respect for each other as each accepted the Prize for Civility in Public Life from Allegheny College at a National Press Club ceremony.

The senators are at the forefront of two of the most contentious issues before Congress. Feinstein is pushing a renewal of the assault weapons ban that lapsed in 2004, while Graham is helping to lead an effort to change immigration law.

“We’re entering into a time of problem-solving simply because we’re running out of time not to solve our problems as a country,” Graham said. “So I think it’s our turn to shine.”

Feinstein and Graham said they could count on getting a fair hearing from each other even when they disagreed on policies.

“We’ve got the immigration issue. We’ve got the sequester issue,” Feinstein said, referring to looming forced cuts in federal spending. “I truly believe that Lindsey and I could sit down and work out solutions to both issues if we were able to do that. But we’re not. We’ve got polarization up and down our ranks.”

After the ceremony, Graham offered an example of a trademark willingness to compromise as he tried to help break the partisan impasse over the forced spending cuts that are slated to start Friday.

Graham said he’d be open to considering increased taxes if Democrats would weigh changes to Medicare and Social Security that would save expenses. “I’ll raise revenue, will you reform entitlements?” Graham told CNN in challenging President Barack Obama and allied congressional Democrats to cut a deal. “And together, we’ll set aside sequestration in a way that won’t disrupt the economy and hurt the Defense Department.”

At the award ceremony, Feinstein offered a moving portrayal of how, as the chair of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, she unexpectedly became the city’s mayor in 1978, describing how she found the body of county supervisor Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official, moments after he and Mayor George Moscone were shot dead by a political rival.

“I became mayor as a product of assassination, a product of incivility, a product of violence,” Feinstein said. “I think words matter. I think people are fragile. I think civility has an antithesis, and that antithesis is violence.”

Former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, who also served in Congress and as the first secretary of homeland security, attended the ceremony and praised the two senators as throwbacks to a better and more productive era in American politics.

“You run to win, but you win to govern,” Ridge said. “Governing requires that you respect the other side’s point of view. For people today who are unwilling to compromise, I say there’s never been a more powerful political compromise than the Constitution of the United States.”

The two senators have very different backgrounds. Feinstein, from one of the country’s bluest states, is a physician’s daughter raised in the affluent Presidio Heights section of San Francisco. Graham, from a solid red state, grew up in the small town of Central, S.C., as the son of tavern keepers.

Both were elected to Congress in 1992, Feinstein to the Senate and Graham to the House of Representatives, from which he graduated to the Senate a decade later. Since then they’ve established relatively centrist voting records.

In an analysis of dozens of key votes last year that was released last week, the National Journal placed Graham as more conservative than 13 Republican senators and less conservative than 32. It placed Feinstein as more liberal than 25 Democratic senators and less liberal than 25.

Each senator has shown a willingness to break with party leaders on high-profile issues.

Feinstein opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement, a top first-term initiative of Democratic President Bill Clinton, and declined to back his attempt to overhaul health care. Under Republican President George W. Bush, she broke with most other Democratic senators in supporting his 2001 tax cuts.

After a partisan House career in which he led the push to impeach Clinton and derided the president’s initiatives as “an agenda that makes you want to throw up,” Graham became more of an unpredictable maverick in the Senate.

He criticized Bush’s conduct of the Iraq War and, as a military lawyer, helped craft major legislation that placed restraints on the interrogation, detention and trial of suspected terrorists.

He’s been a fierce opponent of Democratic President Barack Obama, most recently in opposing his nomination of former Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., as defense secretary and demanding more information about the terrorist assault last Sept. 11 on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which killed four Americans.

Yet during Obama’s tenure, Graham has worked with Democratic senators on climate change, immigration and measures to punish China for its alleged currency manipulation and human rights violations.

Known for his quick wit, Graham on Tuesday followed Feinstein, who’d said she didn’t deserve to receive the civility prize. He prompted roars of laughter from the audience in quipping: “Dianne, I don’t deserve it either, but I don’t deserve most of the crap I get, either, so I’ll take it.”

Graham criticized the 2010 Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission – in which the high court struck down limits on campaign contributions from outside groups – as contributing to the rancor in Washington. Since the ruling, he said, a flood of interest-group money has increased partisanship.

“A lot of it has to do with money,” he said. “Citizens United was not a good decision, in my view. Politics is awash with money.”

Allegheny College President James H. Mullen Jr. urged the congressional colleagues of Feinstein and Graham to follow their example.

“If every politician were to emulate the instincts of Dianne Feinstein and Lindsey Graham, we would be a better democracy,” Mullen said.

PBS commentators David Brooks and Mark Shields received the civility prize last year, the first time it was awarded by the Pennsylvania college founded in 1815.

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