WASHINGTON — He was never elected to House leadership. He’s not a committee chairman, nor does he sit on the key committees that oversee the U.S. budget.
But Rep. Garret Graves, R-La., has been tapped by Speaker Kevin McCarthy for one of the most important tasks facing House Republicans: cutting a deal with President Joe Biden this month to avert a potentially disastrous debt default.
Colleagues say Graves, who started his career as a longtime House and Senate staffer, is a policy wonk and Capitol Hill insider who understands the institution and how bipartisan deals get made. And they describe him as an “honest broker” who has the trust of not only McCarthy, R-Calif., but also the various factions of the GOP Conference, known as the “Five Families.”
McCarthy has leaned on Graves from the very start of his speakership in January, and he gave him a spot in House leadership that did not require election by his fellow Republicans.
McCarthy speaks after debt ceiling meeting with BidenMay 16, 202301:34
And in March, McCarthy deputized Graves to broker a peace between hard-right and moderate Republicans and craft a package that would lift the debt ceiling while cutting spending and repealing parts of Biden’s agenda.
At the time, McCarthy’s decision prompted some head-scratching — even mockery — within the House GOP. “What other speaker in history has outsourced debt ceiling negotiations to a random rank and file?” a senior Republican aide quipped.
But on April 26 the House passed the Limit, Save, Grow Act on a party-line basis — and by a single vote — allowing Republicans to lay down their marker in the standoff with Biden. Since then, McCarthy has tasked Graves with leading negotiations for House Republicans alongside congressional aides and senior White House officials.
McCarthy praised Graves when he was asked about his role Wednesday.
“He’s worked with all the different groups, and he’s really been the individual that helped bring people together in crafting the bill itself of Limit, Save, Grow. So he has a clear understanding of where members are,” McCarthy said.
“He is a former staffer. He’s a former member working in government,” McCarthy continued. “He understands policy — many people would call him a policy wonk.”
'An honest broker'
Reporters have seen Graves produce sheet after sheet of printouts of data, bill text and budget projections from his jacket pocket, like a magician producing scarves, to support talking points during policy discussions. And at a news briefing in his office last week, he gave clues about where the negotiations were heading, spelling out four policy areas where Republicans and the White House could strike a deal.
On Wednesday, Graves was spotted shuttling between the bipartisan negotiations and the speaker’s office as McCarthy spoke nearby at the unveiling of former Speaker Paul Ryan's portrait. Graves declined to comment about the ongoing talks.
Asked whether Graves is empowered to make decisions on his behalf, McCarthy said: “Yeah. We talk very frequently. I go in the room, as well. So I think — if the administration can make decisions with the president not there, we’ll be OK.”
The naming of top negotiators by Biden and McCarthy this week represents a new, more serious phase of debt ceiling talks as the clock ticks closer to the June 1 deadline, when Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has said the U.S. could run out of money to pay its bills.
At Tuesday’s Oval Office meeting with congressional leaders, Biden tapped three top White House aides to negotiate on his behalf: budget director Shalanda Young, adviser Steve Ricchetti and chief legislative liaison Louisa Terrell. McCarthy picked Graves and his outgoing chief of staff, Dan Meyer.
Young also hails from Graves’ district in southern Louisiana, and the two have a rapport they developed during previous discussions over hurricane protection coastal restoration and flood control issues in the state.
“Garret is uniquely qualified, because he has the confidence of the various factions within the conference. He’s an honest broker, and he certainly has the trust of Speaker McCarthy,” said Rep. Kat Cammack, R-Fla., who, like Graves, is a member of the Republican Study Committee, or RSC, the largest bloc of conservatives on Capitol Hill.
“When you’re dealing with any of these groups — whether it’s Main Street [Caucus], Tuesday Group, Freedom Caucus, RSC — the big thing is: Are you going to be a person of your word, are you going to be a man of your word? And Garret has done that consistently,” Cammack said.
Centrist Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., said: “Garret is … trustworthy, levelheaded and a good listener. If he has enemies, I don’t know who they are.”
Rep. Bob Good, R-Va., a McCarthy skeptic and a member of the far-right Freedom Caucus, said he has "no reason not to trust Congressman Graves."
"He’s been a key resource, ally, lieutenant for Speaker McCarthy over the last six months,” Good said in an interview Wednesday night. “And I think he’s been helpful in getting the conference together on the legislation that we passed and bringing disparate viewpoints to come together towards our shared objectives and common goals."
'Eye to eye'
Since his election to Congress in 2014, Graves has kept a relatively low profile on the Hill. Rather than try to build a national brand, he put his head down, immersed himself in committee work on the Natural Resources and the Transportation and Infrastructure committees and focused on policy issues, specifically energy, which is the lifeblood of Louisiana.
Energy policy has become central to the debt talks as Republicans demand that permitting reform be part of any bipartisan deal.
Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., whom Graves succeeded in the House, called him "talented" and a "good guy" who has "obviously gotten into the good graces" of McCarthy. Cassidy expressed some disappointment that Graves voted no on the major infrastructure package he negotiated in 2021 but said they mostly work well together on issues like flood insurance and disaster relief.
"Obviously our interests diverged a little. He voted against the infrastructure bill, and I voted for it, so there's not always a complete sync there," Cassidy said in an interview. "And, of course, the infrastructure bill is incredible for my state. ... But as a rule, we pretty much see eye to eye."
In 2019, McCarthy named Graves as the top Republican on the House Climate Crisis Committee, a Democratic effort that did not get much attention. And before this year, Graves had been overshadowed by two other powerful Louisiana House Republicans: Majority Leader Steve Scalise and GOP Conference Vice Chair Mike Johnson, both former chairmen of the Republican Study Committee.
But even before Graves became a member of Congress, he had acquired a deep knowledge of both ends of the Capitol. He was an aide to then-Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., both in his personal office and when Tauzin was chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee. He also worked as an aide at the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.
“I think he understands the inner workings of the House. He has a good pulse on our conference and the political dynamics,” said Rep. Darin LaHood, R-Ill., another colleague on the Republican Study Committee. “He is a former staffer at the Energy and Commerce Committee and has immense knowledge from his experience as a staffer and his leadership on energy issues, his leadership on transportation issues."
A Democrat who has worked alongside Graves on the Transportation and Infrastructure panel called him a serious legislator who is not interested in scoring political points in the media.
"He takes legislating seriously and is willing to listen to the argument if he doesn't agree initially. His views are conservative, but he knows we have to move forward," said Rep. Rick Larsen of Washington, the top Democrat on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
"He is a serious negotiator and definitely not interested in the sound bite."