McCarthy’s Debt Point Man Armed With Policy, Negotiating Skills

  • Rep. Garret Graves tapped to be in talks with White House
  • Louisiana lawmaker helped address tensions among GOP factions

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Speaker Kevin McCarthy has turned to Garret Graves, a Louisiana congressman known for his negotiating chops and policy expertise, to help pull the debt limit deal across the finish line.

Although Graves wasn’t in the first two debt limit meetings between congressional leaders and President Joe Biden, he’s been a part of conversations on the issue for months, chairing a committee comprised of elected House Republican leaders and the heads of each of the five ideological caucuses.

That understanding of where the factions of the party fall makes Graves a key person to have in the room, said Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.).

“As we’re getting to the final stages of the negotiation, you might as well have somebody there who’s been involved in the discussions from the very beginning with all the different groups from within our conference,” Scalise said.

Photographer: Eric Lee/Bloomberg
Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.) is Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s lead negotiator in debt limit talks.

Graves became the California Republican’s right-hand man during the battle for the speakership when he began working to persuade hardline conservatives to back McCarthy. He has since worked to bridge differences among the various ideological groups in the conference known as the “five families.”

He also brings to the table a deep knowledge of energy and environmental permitting projects, a GOP priority that has gained some Democratic support and could be a part of the final package to raise the debt limit.

Energy Permitting Overhaul Mixed Into Debt Ceiling Negotiations

The 51-year old lawmakers was first elected to Congress in 2014 and represents the heavily Republican 6th District that includes much of the state capital Baton Rouge and its suburbs.

Before he came to Congress, Graves chaired a Louisiana agency focused on coastal projection and restoration projects, which involved permitting. Since coming to Congress, he has pushed legislation to expedite the reviews of transportation and energy infrastructure projects. The bill’s text was a part of the GOP’s debt limit bill (H.R. 2811).

“If you’re talking about things like permitting reform, if you’re talking about things where you actually have to write the text, Garret has been working on this stuff,” said Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-N.D.).

Beyond his time working as a staffer on Capitol Hill, Graves sharpened his negotiating skills in Louisiana working with federal agencies, BP and states affected by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 to come up with a $1 billion agreement for recovery project in the Gulf of Mexico.

Bigger Picture

Graves’s ability to focus on the bigger picture is helped by the unique role he occupies in the conference. Unlike the elected leaders, Graves has no additional responsibilities like controlling the floor, whipping votes or leading on messaging. He doesn’t chair any major caucuses or committees.

Before winning his seat in 2014, Graves spent close to a decade on Capitol Hill as a staffer, working for some legendary Louisiana deal makers. He served as an intern for Sen. John Breaux (D-La.) and mostly worked for Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.). who then led the Energy and Commerce Committee, where Graves also was a staffer.

He also has a tie to at least one negotiator from the White House. Graves represents White House Budget Director Shalanda Young’s hometown in Louisiana.

In meetings on the debt limit, Graves’s strategy is to listen and ask questions, said Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.) who heads the business-friendly Main Street Caucus and meets with Graves and other members of ideological caucuses regularly.

“There are guys who are in meetings to push their own agenda. Garret never pushes his own agenda,” Johnson said. “He is focused on the team and he’s focused on the win.”

Graves has also built trust with the House GOP’s most conservative members who often buck leadership, which has made him a critical player when tensions get high.

When the House Republican’s debt limit package was in trouble before the floor vote, Graves helped forge a last-minute agreement with lawmakers including Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) and Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) that ultimately lead to the bill’s passage.

Roy, who like Graves is a former congressional staffer and self described “policy guy,” said the Louisiana Republican built trust “by not double crossing people.”

Not Boring

“It’s a dance right?” Roy said. “You have to figure out like, what am I communicating to this person? What do I know? Giving a heads up and not divulging confidence in somebody else. Having to balance that is a tough thing in this town. So he does a good job of all that.”

One Democrat who butted heads with Graves on one issue found common ground elsewhere. Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), an ardent environmentalist, said Graves is “laser focused on the fossil fuels industry’s agenda” and having him in the room on negotiations “makes me believe I’m about to be served a shit sandwich.”

Yet the two have found bipartisan ground on working to combat illegal fishing. Huffman said Graves is smart and has a good sense of humor, although he could be “provocative.”

“He can be very animated. It can be amusing at times,” Huffman said. “He can go a bridge too far at times. But he’s not boring.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Emily Wilkins in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Bennett Roth at; George Cahlink at

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