Hours after returning from a meeting on the debt ceiling at the White House, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) ushered a group of Republican lawmakers’ spouses around the House floor Tuesday evening. He stood behind the speaker’s dais with a smile on his face, explaining the way the House functions.
Just one floor below, with binders tucked under their arms, two negotiators tapped by President Biden entered the south door of the Capitol, heading toward a meeting where they would work to find a solution to the looming crisis. Joining them was Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.), who McCarthy has plucked from a cast of 222 House Republicans to hammer out the critical deal needed to avoid a catastrophic economic default on the United States’ debt.
McCarthy’s ability to keep up with the vast aspects of his speaker duties is the result of his deep trust in Graves, who the California Republican has quickly elevated after seeing in the Louisianian the potential to assuage differences, hammer out deals, and translate compromise into policy. Graves’s success in helping find consensus among Republicans to elect McCarthy speaker and corralling the disparate ideological factions of the conference during the first several months of this year — a daunting task by any measure — is why McCarthy’s allies say Graves, 51, is the obvious pick to represent Republicans in ongoing negotiations with the White House.
But while Graves’s calm demeanor and attentiveness have earned him respect from many lawmakers, several of his more conservative colleagues worry the more traditional, but still staunchly conservative, Republican’s openness to striking a deal with Democrats will misrepresent — or completely ignore — their attempts to sharply cut spending. Others are irked that Graves has risen so quickly after eight years in the House and does not have the requisite experience for such a high-stakes mission, having never served as committee chair or been elected by his colleagues to leadership.
The negotiations have already been a test for Graves.
Late Friday morning, Graves exited the first-floor meeting room in the Capitol where he’s been huddling with senior Biden officials to announce a “pause” in discussions, a standstill that comes with less than two weeks until the potential “X date” deadline for when the country could default. Talks between Republicans and the White House resumed seven hours later after McCarthy, Graves, and Rep. Patrick T. McHenry (R-N.C.), spent Friday afternoon informing factions of the conference about the hang-ups that remained on varying issues.
Appeasing all factions of the conference is a thankless job many Republicans do not want. Though many colleagues and aides believe Graves will deliver a deal that can become law, several privately wonder if McCarthy is positioning Graves as the “fall guy” to blame if negotiations fall apart to appease his far-right flank, that might otherwise move to remove him as speaker.
McCarthy has stressed that Graves is imminently qualified to ensure all views are represented, having been the top Republican listening to all “five families” and taking each faction’s input to build their debt ceiling proposal.
“Congressman Graves, he’s been elected — appointed to our leadership table and he’s been working with all our different groups and he’s really been the individual that helped put people together in crafting the bill,” McCarthy said at a bicameral news conference Wednesday where he touted House and Senate Republican unity on cutting spending.
Graves and key McCarthy officials, including his chief of staff, Dan Meyer, are representing House Republicans in negotiations with two trusted Biden aides: counselor to the president Steve Ricchetti and Office of Management and Budget Director Shalanda Young. Young, who was a Democratic staffer on the House Appropriations Committee for over a decade, coincidentally happens to be from the southern Louisiana district that Graves represents.
Graves “has a clear understanding of where our members are,” McCarthy said. “I didn’t want to put somebody in that room who didn’t understand that.”
In addition to Graves, McHenry — the chairman of the Financial Services Committee, a veteran vote counter and one of McCarthy’s most trusted allies — has been at Graves’s side for some of the talks this week. Both emerged from the Friday evening meeting expressing a lack of confidence that they could reach a deal in principle quickly.
“This wasn’t a negotiation tonight,” said Graves, who declined to be interviewed at length for this article. “This was a discussion about realistic numbers, a realistic path forward, and something that truly changes the trajectory of this country’s spending and debt problem.”
A common refrain on Capitol Hill is that lawmakers can be separated into two groups: the work horses and the show horses. Graves, according to his colleagues, has always been the former, putting his head down so much that many Republicans have paid him little mind during his four terms in office.
But those who know him best, including current and former staff, often remark that if they want to debate Graves on the policy, it’s best to come overprepared.
“He was always a workhorse on policy,” Rep. Bryan Steil (R-Wis.) said. “He knows policy, chapter and verse.”
Graves’s understanding of the legislative process and how Congress functions stems from his days as a House and Senate staffer. Graves, who attended but never graduated from college, spent almost a decade serving former Rep. Bill Tauzin (R-La.), often helping him draft policy when he chaired the House Energy and Commerce committee. Graves’s vast knowledge on climate and energy policy carried over into the Senate, when he worked for former Louisiana Sens. David Vitter (R) and John Breaux (D).
Graves went back home to Baton Rouge in 2008 when then-Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) tapped him to chair the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, a government authority established after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated the state. It was in that role that he began negotiating for the state, including with BP PLC after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and learned about the drawn-out permitting process to more quickly jump-start oil and gas projects.
Permitting reform has remained one of Graves top policy issues since getting elected to the House in 2014 — a helpful background now that permitting is an area Republicans and the White House hope to find compromise on in the debt ceiling talks. His expertise on energy policy and realism on climate change led McCarthy to appoint him as the top Republican to serve on the House Climate Crisis Committee established under then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in 2019.
While serving on the committee, McCarthy again tapped Graves to take the reigns of an energy, climate and conservation task force that allowed members to craft policy prescriptions that the majority of the conference ultimately agreed upon to show a united front ahead of the 2022 midterm elections.
Since arriving on Capitol Hill, Graves has remained a conservative who toes the party line. According to the Heritage Foundation, which determines how conservative lawmakers are based on votes and bills co-sponsored, Graves has a 96 percent conservative score. He voted with President Trump 90 percent of the time, including objecting to the certification of Pennsylvania’s results from the 2020 election.
Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), who also served on the Climate Committee, glowingly described Graves as a whip-smart and “very animated” colleague, who has a “good sense of humor.” Still, when asked whether he’s confident Graves can land a deal to avoid default, Huffman worried that Graves’s focus on protecting the fossil fuel industry could make it difficult for Democrats to support a possible deal.
“Him being [Republicans’] lead negotiator makes me believe I’m about to be served a s — t sandwich,” Huffman said.
Before Graves became the key “special negotiator” for House Republicans, the wonky congressman, who is also known for having a biting sense of humor, left a critical impression on many in the conference during the GOP’s first week in the majority.
Recalling how Republicans began to look like “idiots” after being unable to elect McCarthy as speaker, Graves, McHenry, and Reps. French Hill (R-Ark.) found themselves offering to help dissolve the tension and hear out the 21 holdouts from the House Freedom Caucus.
“Those of us who have a relationship with McCarthy, we get pulled into whatever the hell we’re doing,” said McHenry, who is McCarthy’s closest friend in Congress. “You’re in the soup before you know it.”
People in the room with Graves during those grueling days describe being struck by his ability to cut through nonsense and pull people together. He would pull out his laptop, point to each individual to ask what they wanted and take notes of each request. Then he would find what Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) described as “the points of intersection.”
Many colleagues saw Graves differently after the speakership fight. That included McCarthy, who gave him the responsibility of chairing the new Elected Leadership Council, compromised of chairs and chosen representatives of each of ideological faction. Graves also claims membership in the Republican Study Committee, the largest faction of the conference that reflects the most common conservative ideals of the GOP, though some lawmakers have remarked not seeing him attend meetings.
As the leader of the ELC, Graves has helped the groups facilitate debate and find consensus to enact policies through Republicans’ razor-thin four vote majority.
“Garret is like Kevin’s policy director,” McHenry said.
One House Republican involved in ongoing talks went even further, describing Graves as “the majority leader,” a direct jab at Rep. Steve Scalise (R), a fellow Louisianian who holds the second highest title in GOP leadership. Graves and Scalise are not particularly close, aides and other lawmakers said.
And while the top two GOP leaders get along and coordinate as a team, McCarthy has remained skeptical of Scalise after the Louisianian almost challenged him for minority leader in 2018 after Republicans lost the House majority in the midterms. McCarthy is known for rewarding loyalty and trusting few, according to multiple lawmakers and senior aides, who like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.
Members of the far-right flank have taken note of that dynamic, privately musing why an equally staunch conservative, like Scalise, is not leading negotiations to ensure that a majority of their debt proposal becomes law. Multiple allies of Scalise say he is happy to keep focused on the other parts of the agenda — which recently includes muscling through a border security bill — while McCarthy, Graves, and McHenry get stuck with the highly potent issue of solving the debt crisis.
Even so, there is growing skepticism among those in the two most conservative ideological groups that Graves’s tendency to make deals will only water down their proposal — and in turn force McCarthy to agree, instead of keeping his promises to the House Freedom Caucus.
Rep. Bob Good (R-Va.), who never voted in favor of McCarthy for speaker, said he presumes that if McCarthy entrusted Graves with such negotiating responsibility, it means he will “reflect the position of the speaker, which is going to reflect the position in the Republican majority.” But pressed on whether he remains confident Graves will accurately vouch for the Freedom Caucus, Good said, “We’ll see.”
In a statement released this week, the Freedom Caucus demanded that McCarthy and Graves cease negotiating with the White House until the Senate passes the House GOP-approved debt ceiling bill. It read as an escalation after a week in which McCarthy had devoted endless opportunities to tout the unity among House Republicans and extends to some in the Senate. Freedom Caucus Chairman Scott Perry (R-Pa.), however, said their ire was directed at the Senate instead of House GOP leadership.
Graves also needs to make sure any deal is good with other governance-minded Republicans who have thrown their complete trust behind him to get a good deal done quickly.
“Outside of building a DeLorean and going back in time 50 days, this is the best way to do it,” Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-N.D.) said referencing the car used to time travel in “Back to the Future.” “It’s important to understand — particularly on things that we think have a real shot of getting in here — that we understand the policy.”
On Friday evening, Graves emerged from the negotiators meeting for the first time all week wearing a casual button down and a baseball cap that read “Port Nola.” Still tucked under his arm were stacks of papers and an iPad. Unlike many of his colleagues who rushed off the House floor Thursday morning to catch flights home, Graves was sticking to his earlier prediction that he would stay put in the Capitol all weekend.
Asked when negotiators could meet again as the clock inched closer to fiscal calamity, Graves calmly said, “It’s indefinite right now. I’m just not sure.”
Theodoric Meyer, Tony Romm and Rachel Siegel contributed to this report.