Senate Judiciary Committee chair Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., broke with his own committee's rules Thursday to push through a Trump-backed asylum bill while ignoring vocal protests from Democrats on the panel.
"You’re breaking the rules of the committee … this is unprecedented,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., told Graham as he called for a roll call vote on the Secure and Protect Act. The bill would require Central American asylum seekers to apply for asylum in countries they enter on the way to the U.S., and would also increase the time the government can detain families and children from 20 days to 100 days.
“I decline to vote on the grounds that this is an illegitimate process,” declared Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I. Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, demanded that Graham point to the rule “that allows you to do this.”
When a bill is brought before the panel, Judiciary Committee rules allow any member who opposes it to delay consideration of the legislation for another week. Though the rule does not guarantee the bill’s postponement, the rule has traditionally been respected by committee chairs, noted George Washington University political science professor Sarah Binder.
Graham not only disregarded the rule, he prevented the Democrats from speaking at all before the committee vote.
Graham defended his move by lecturing Democrats that he was not "changing the rules. I am making a motion in response to what you did last week."
Last week, just one Democrat attended a committee meeting where Graham brought the bill up for a mark-up. Under committee rules, two members of the minority must be present for a quorum, but Graham again flouted committee rules that would have dictated deferring consideration of the bill.
Graham’s committee issued a press release accusing Democrats of refusing to show up at the meeting in order to stall the bill.
“The Democrats’ refusal to attend is designed to prevent the legislation from coming to a vote in committee,” the statement said. “Chairman Graham pledged to confront the delay, bring the bill up again next week, and force a committee vote.”
Graham doubled down on his claim at Thursday’s meeting.
“You are not going to take my job away from me. I take this very personally. I tried my best,” Graham said, arguing that he had waited for weeks to move on the bill.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., countered that he did not attend because “a member of my family was being buried that day” and added that multiple Republicans also failed to attend the meeting.
Leahy, the committee’s former chairman, physically ripped up a copy of the committee rules as he scolded Graham.
"If the majority is willing to break any rule in order to report this bill today, there are no rules. … This committee is nothing but a conveyor belt of ultra-partisan ideas. It's under the thumb and control of Donald Trump," Leahy said. "This is supposed to be the Senate Judiciary Committee. Not the Donald Trump committee."
Graham was unmoved.
“What you’re telling me is I should ignore what you did to me last week. I will not,” he said.
Graham said that he was only waiving the rules for this specific bill. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate, countered that Graham would just do so again if the president wanted him to.
"I'm sorry but I don't believe that. I think that if Trump snaps his fingers again they'll do it all over again. They're afraid of him," Durbin said.
Feinstein pointed out that the bill, which would need 60 votes to pass the full Senate and would also need to win approval in the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives, “has no chance of becoming law.”
Graham acknowledged that the bill was unlikely to get Democratic votes but said he did not want his committee to “become irrelevant.”
"I don't want bills like this to go directly to the floor … but I am not going to stop the process," he said. "It is now time for us to move forward and get this bill out of committee."
Whitehouse echoed his disgust after the bill passed the committee with only Republican support.
"I am sick at heart at what we have done," he said. "I hate what has just happened."