Low-key Louisiana lawmaker tapped to help lead GOP debt negotiations
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy turned to a close adviser who helped him lock up the votes to be elected speaker for an even tougher assignment: brokering a deal to avoid a historic default on country's credit limit.
Rep. Garret Graves of Louisiana isn't a top elected leader or committee chairman, but his low-key demeanor and expertise on energy policy landed him a seat across from the president's top aides in the debt ceiling talks.
South Dakota GOP Rep. Dusty Johnson recently summed up Graves' approach in a House GOP conference that is full of lawmakers with national nicknames who make the rounds on cable news and have large social media followings: "Garret Graves is anonymous to everyday Americans, and that's exactly the way he wants it."
Graves helped McCarthy round up the votes to be elected speaker — after 15 ballots over four days of tense talks. Now he's pushing the speaker's agenda for shrinking federal spending as part of a deal to increase the country's borrowing authority.
"The numbers are foundational here — the speaker has been very clear: a red line is spending less money and unless and until we're there, the rest of it is really irrelevant," Graves said after one negotiating session at the Capitol.
Over days of talks, he fields questions from a growing pack of reporters covering the various negotiating sessions. On Tuesday he was blunt: "I'm telling you that we still have substantial distance between us and them on the numbers right now," referring to the gulf between the House Republicans and the White House negotiators.
Graves' role brokering GOP bills among "5 families"
The Louisiana Republican played a critical role for McCarthy during the drawn-out fight for the speakership in January, which put him in the middle of a bloc of members who were issuing demands.
Republican Study Committee Chairman Kevin Hern, R-Okla., who heads a group of fiscal conservatives that includes Graves, says it was good practice for what was to come.
"You have to appoint people that can sit there and grind this out," Hern said of the debt limit negotiations. "And that's what Garrett's been charged with doing since, you know, back in January, actually, before there was a debt limit issue. He worked on the speaker getting his vote. So he's obviously won the confidence of the speaker to go out and talk with us."
Graves' ability to tamp down the drama during the speakership fight caused McCarthy to give him a new post at the leadership table. He coordinates strategy with the five House GOP factions — dubbed the "five families," a reference drawn from the "Godfather" movie about feuding mob families.
Johnson heads the Republican Main Street caucus, a group of more establishment GOP members, and says trust is the reason that Graves was elevated for this latest high-stakes role.
"It's my assessment that Garret Graves has not just the trust of the speaker, he has the trust of the conference, and he has the trust of the five families," he told reporters. "And that is noteworthy."
Ohio Republican David Joyce leads another one of those families — the Republican Governance Group — a group of moderates. He says Graves has been briefing him when they run into each other at the gym about the talks. Like others, the first thing he mentions is Graves' sense of humor. He said Graves has a reputation for playing practical jokes and recounted one that played out during a congressional hearing.
"Rodney Davis [a former House member from Illinois], one time at a hearing — [Graves] set up an iPad and the level behind him and above him with an arrow that said 'doofus' — poor Rodney's making his point and everybody sees doofus," Joyce recalled while laughing. "They don't hear a word he's saying!"
North Carolina Rep. Patrick McHenry, another key McCarthy ally who's been in these debt talks, said there's a general sense of comity at the negotiating table — "and since Graves is in the room, a little bit of comedy."
Before he was elected to the House in 2014, Graves chaired a state coastal board in Louisiana overseeing construction of levees and negotiating permits for land restoration. In 2010, he was a trustee on the Deep Water Horizon settlement for its Gulf oil spill — the largest in U.S. history.
Joyce notes Graves has a deep knowledge on energy projects. During the debt ceiling talks, House GOP members are pushing to add reforms to speed permitting for new projects to the compromise bill. Graves authored the proposal that was included in the House GOP bill that passed last month. Joyce says mastering policy and the politics of the GOP conference is a balancing act.
"You need somebody who understands and appreciates all points and issues, and [Graves] certainly is very good on the issues that he's handled," he told NPR. "I've worked on a lot with him on climate with him and other things, and he's always very specific, very detailed, and he's just got a great mind for making sure all the chess pieces are moving on the board."
Graves and top White House negotiator share home district
Graves has built some good relationships across the aisle. Shalanda Young — the White House budget director and lead negotiator on the debt — is from his south Louisiana district and they've previously collaborated to approve money for infrastructure projects there.
Vermont Democratic Sen. Peter Welch served eight terms in the House and heaped on praise.
"Garrett is a very effective and skillful person. He's got a great temperament, very smart," he said. "So the fact that Kevin [McCarthy]'s got him involved is an indication of how much respect the speaker has for him."
If Graves can help broker a deal, he'll likely be called on to help sell it to to his party — but Johnson says he's not looking for credit.
"Many members of Congress are desperate to want you to believe that they're the smartest person in the room — that is not Garret Graves," he said. "For him, it's about the country. For him, it's about the deal. It is not about getting one more list of accolades on Garret Graves — his obituary. He's the right guy at the right time."
But with a tricky path to get a deal to the president's desk before the country defaults, Graves could also be blamed if things go sideways.
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