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The path to solving the border crisis leads through Democrats, Lindsey Graham says

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham is enjoying new-found popularity with his right-wing base, but he could risk losing much of that goodwill as he appears poised to return to a “third rail” of conservative politics: Comprehensive immigration reform.

This is the very issue has haunted the South Carolina Republican in the past with conservative voters back home.

“I would think long and hard about doing it,” said Chip Felkel, a South Carolina GOP strategist, of Graham’s decision to wade back into the politically toxic immigration debate — a decision that would necessitate compromising with Democrats to make a deal.

Graham wants Republicans, Democrats and the White House to rally behind his new bill to address the humanitarian crisis at the southern border by making it harder for Central American migrants to claim asylum. Among other things, the measure would change the asylum process, make it easier to return minors to their home countries and lengthen the window for detaining families.

This isn’t a bill many, if any, Democrats are expected to support. Last week, Graham suggested he didn’t care: “We’re not gonna legalize people unless you address part of the problem that led to a broken immigration system.”

Now, Graham appears to be changing his tone, saying he isn’t willing to abandon his plan to address the border crisis but would actually allow his bill to become the basis for something that could resemble comprehensive immigration overhaul legislation.

“We’re gonna have a hearing where people can test this proposition. If they come up with a change that people think makes sense, we’re gonna change it,” said Graham, who plans to move his bill through the Senate Judiciary Committee, which he chairs. “I hope Democrats will say, ‘I’d like to change it this way, but I would also like you to include this’ — DACA, you name it.”

DACA refers to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, the Obama-era initiative granting stays of deportation to millions of young undocumented immigrants brought to the country illegally by their parents. President Donald Trump has sought to end the program but it is still allowed to operate pending legal proceedings.

Everyone will have to cooperate, Graham said.

“If Democrats won’t even talk with us and won’t make a good faith effort to stop (the border crisis), they own the problem,” Graham told reporters. “To any Republican who doesn’t want to find a solution, then you own the problem. Then you need to go back to your states and your districts and explain how you’re going to fix this problem without a Democrat.

“If the president says ‘no’ to more immigration reforms, then I think he will own this problem,” Graham continued. “I am urging the president to lead us to a solution.”

Risk or reward?

This new posture could restore Graham’s reputation with congressional Democrats who feel abandoned since the senator has aligned himself with Trump and adopted unapologetically partisan positions, most recently urging the president’s son to ignore a congressional subpoena.

“This is not the Lindsey I know,” U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, a moderate Democrat from West Virginia, recently bemoaned on Fox News.

Depending how far Graham goes with immigration, however, he could be left vulnerable to a primary challenger in 2020.

Graham’s vociferous support for then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh last fall was followed by rising approval ratings and, likely, diminished the chance of any serious Republican challenging Graham in a primary. Since that fight, Graham has made other moves signaling his loyalty to Trump, likely to the same effect.

But his support for expanding legal immigration and the DACA program put his reelection at risk in 2014, and five years later, immigration opponents in South Carolina aren’t likely to be more forgiving.

Felkel said this would especially be the case if Trump, who remains enormously popular in the state, doesn’t give Graham the political cover he would need to withstand scrutiny.

“He has taken so much heat from so many people” on immigration, said Felkel. “I’m not sure it’s a hill you want to go up when you have such an unpredictable White House.”

Graham told reporters Wednesday he had the administration’s support for his bill, and felt emboldened that Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, was simultaneously shopping around a proposal that would pair border security measures with an expansion of merit-based legal immigration. Trump endorsed that proposal in a speech in the White House Rose Garden on Thursday.

Graham couldn’t predict whether Trump would agree to work with Democrats on a broader immigration package. He also couldn’t say whether Democrats would come to the negotiating table at all.

Richard Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat in the U.S. Senate and one of Graham’s most reliable partners on immigration legislation over the years, said he wouldn’t support Graham’s underlying asylum legislation, which he conflated with the administration’s position.

He did say, however, that he was eager for a debate.

“There may be a humanitarian crisis at the border ... (but) there’s a humanitarian crisis in the United States because of the president’s decision to eliminate the DACA program,” Durbin said. “If we’re gonna talk about these crises, let’s put them all on the table.”

Emma Dumain works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, where her reporting on South Carolina politics appears in The State, The Herald, The Sun News, The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette. She was previously the Washington correspondent for the Charleston, South Carolina Post and Courier. Dumain also covered Congress for Roll Call and Congressional Quarterly.