“Y’all gonna get something done, Senator? Don’t you drag my ass back, alright?” Missouri Representative Ann Wagner’s voice boomed across the low-ceilinged basement of Hill Country Barbecue Market on Thursday evening.
The mass of mostly 20- and 30-something conservatives in the audience laughed: Senate Republicans are currently mired in their latest attempt to repeal the 2010 Affordable Care Act, and the prospect of their House counterparts joining them in skipping the August recess to do so was, well, funny. Senator Lindsey Graham, standing near the stage, the target of Wagner’s jest, chuckled politely.
South Carolina’s senior senator was there to kick off a weekend of events for Maverick PAC, a group intended to recruit the next generation of young Republican donors and lawmakers, like 39-year-old Texas Representative Will Hurd, or New York’s 33-year-old Elise Stefanik. Maverick PAC is led by co-chairs Morgan Ortagus, and U Street restaurateur and former Jeb Bush aide Fritz Brogan.
It’s been a hell of a week for the GOP, what with revelations that President Trump’s eldest son, Donald Jr., met privately with a Russian lawyer last summer in hopes of getting dirt on Hillary Clinton, so it felt appropriate that Graham, 62, was there to address the future of the party.
Graham, sounding more florid than he does in front of the C-SPAN cameras, was optimistic about Republicans keeping the Senate and, much more crucially, the House in 2018—at the end of the day, he said, all Democrats “have to offer is: ‘They suck.’” But he said the future will take a turn if, after eight years of “bitching and moaning about Obamacare,” Republicans fail to pass its replacement.
“As to where we’re going and how we’re gonna get there, I have no clue,” Graham said. “But we’re gonna do something with healthcare, hopefully.”
But Graham had spent the last hour on the phone with three governors—Massachusetts’s Charlie Baker was one, he later told me—and he had a new strategy in mind: eliminate the refundable tax credit that helps low- and moderate-income individuals buy insurance on the individual market, and block-grant the money instead to governors. “And get the hell out of the way up here in DC.”
The tradeoff, of course, is that the upper-income taxes from Obamacare stay in place—a tough selling point for conservatives. But Graham thinks they’re worth the chance to give the states what he says would be “more autonomy” over their insurance markets.
“You’ll get a tax cut later,” he quipped to the mostly white, suit- or pencil-skirt-clad audience. “You wanna help the economy have a tax bill later, right? So this extra amount of money, we’re gonna write a check to the governors and say, you’re better able than anybody in DC to deliver healthcare.”
Whether Graham’s idea gains traction remains to be seen, but he’s convinced that the Senate needs to whip the support of more governors if they want to get to 50 votes. (Graham’s confident that Nevada Senator Dean Heller, for instance, remains a likely “nay” as long as his state’s governor, Brian Sandoval, is opposed to the bill.)
Graham acknowledged that healthcare isn’t the only cloud over Republicans at the moment, but he said he was glad to have developed a closer relationship with Trump. “So me and the Donald, we have our issues. I don’t know how to say that in French,” he said. “But the thing I like most…is he gets his limitations when it comes to the military.”
Graham entertained the crowd with a story about an early-morning phone call with Trump during which the President relayed a conversation he’d had with Defense Secretary James Mattis.
“We’re asking permission to send 50 of our soldiers into a village outside Raqqa,” Mattis told Trump, according to Graham. “Why are you calling me?” Trump replied. “I don’t know where this village is at.” Mattis told him, “Well, that’s what we’ve done for the last 8 years.”
Trump, Graham said, then asked, “Who’s asking to go into that village?” Mattis told him, “A major, first in his class at West Point.”
“’Why do you think I know more about that than he does?’” Graham said Trump asked. “And then he hung up.”
Graham said Trump’s habit of deferring to Pentagon officials on military operations “is gonna win this war.” But the room’s laughter at the tale revealed a collective understanding of the value that comes when Trump doesn’t meddle. Yes, Graham thinks that may win the war—it may save the Republican Party, too.