Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee slammed their Republican chairman, Lindsey Graham, on Thursday after he forced a vote to report a bill to change asylum laws out of the panel, claiming his Democratic colleagues didn’t show up for a markup last week.
After Graham criticized Democrats for their absence, one lawmaker — Sen. Patrick Leahy, of Vermont — hit back, saying he missed the session last week because he was at a funeral for a family member.
The drama unfolded late Thursday morning as Graham proceeded with his asylum bill, saying he was bypassing committee rules to advance it and chiding some of his colleagues for not showing last week.
“I'm responding to what you did last week," the South Carolina Republican said. "Last week you chose not to show up so that I couldn't proceed with the bill that I’ve been trying to work on for about two or three months. What am I supposed to do?”
Leahy replied that their panel was “supposed to be the Senate Judiciary Committee, not the Donald Trump committee” and that Graham was “throwing out all the rules.”
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Graham, in an extended response, hit back at Leahy, saying “you've been here a long time, I would never have done this to you.”
“If you tried to work with me for seven weeks on something important to you, and me and my crowd did not show up so you couldn't move forward, I don't think you'd have much choice; you'd either give up being chairman or you'd do what I'm doing,” Graham said.
Leahy then explained the somber reason he wasn’t in attendance last week.
“I wasn't here last week because a member of my family was being buried that day, so I couldn't be there,” he said.
Graham then apologized to Leahy, but noted that he "was told nobody is going to come for the express purpose that I could not mark this bill up."
The panel's ranking member, Dianne Feinstein of California, had also objected to the vote, pointing out that the bill ultimately would not clear Congress.
"No matter how many committee rules or Senate rules are broken, this bill will not become law," she said. "I deeply respect you, Mr. Chairman, but given this is a dead end proposition, it begs the question, why are we doing this?"
Later, the panel voted to advance the bill. The measure would require asylum seekers to first file applications in Central American and Mexico before being allowed entry into the United States and would make changes to how long migrant families and unaccompanied children are detained.
Other Democrats shredded Graham for how he handled the situation.
“I am sick at heart at what we have done, I hate being here right now, I hate what has just happened here,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., said. “I think today will be a dark day in the history of this committee.”
Moments later, Graham explained to NBC News why he felt compelled to take action on his bill with urgency.
“Somebody's got to lead around here, and I chose to lead," he told NBC News. "The committee's not going to become irrelevant. You can't have a situation where the chairman of the committee can't do business. If you're working in an open, transparent way to try to solve a problem, you just can't be told as chairman you can never move a bill that's your own bill.”