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GOP senators visit Eagle Pass, Texas, after voting against bipartisan border bill

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Senator Lindsey Graham has long been one of the Senate's most vocal defense hawks. For years, he was a fixture at the annual Munich Security Conference. But this year Graham decided to skip that meeting for the first time in his career to go to the border. Here he is earlier today in Eagle Pass, Texas, with his fellow South Carolina Republican senator, Tim Scott.

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LINDSEY GRAHAM: Until we regain control of our border, it's going to be very difficult to help other countries. So the national security problems associated with a southern border in disarray, to me, deserve my time and attention.

SUMMERS: Senator Scott and Graham spoke with NPR congressional correspondent Claudia Grisales just after their border visit. Claudia joins us now from Eagle Pass. Hi there.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Hi, Juana.

SUMMERS: So, Claudia, start by just explaining to us. I mean, Graham and Scott are two senators who do not come from a border state. Why did they feel the need to travel there to Eagle Pass today?

GRISALES: Right. It was such a split screen to have them here at the border while many of their colleagues headed to Europe. Eagle Pass has become a frequent stopping point for Republican lawmakers taking trips here. Texas Governor Greg Abbott was here today for one of his regular press conferences. And earlier this week, Senators Graham and Scott both voted against a bipartisan border security bill and a national security aid bill that would have directed help to Ukraine, Israel and other partners. And Graham's vote in particular was a major departure for him, so was his decision to skip the Munich conference for this border visit. He says he's been there every year since it got started. And Tim Scott himself was going to be there for the first time this year. But they both said that the focus needs to be on home right now, meaning the border.

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GRAHAM: Don't be surprised if the American people look inward when their country is on fire. You know, it's pretty hard to penetrate the idea that we're on fire here at home. The economy is - inflation's high. Crime's up. The border's broken.

GRISALES: Yes. And there you hear Graham talking about the crisis that he and Scott saw in person today. And so there's this significant shift in the Republican Party when it comes to national security. Some would argue it's isolationist, and that's backed by former President Trump. Graham has been an advocate for Ukraine funding and a very vocal critic of Vladimir Putin. Many Democrats criticized his absence from the Munich conference this week as a sign of loyalty to Trump.

SUMMERS: And what does Senator Graham have to say about that?

GRISALES: Well, he said he's making a statement by being at the border. He believes America needs to be critical in terms of its stability for the world. And he also mentioned Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader, who we understand died today. And he says he believes Navalny was murdered by Putin and that Putin is a war criminal. But he also went on to say that the breakdown of the border is larger than any threat he sees from Europe today.

SUMMERS: Claudia, you mentioned former President Trump earlier. And I just want to ask you, how much is he a factor here?

GRISALES: He is a huge factor. I've asked both senators about this, and both said they've spoken with Trump recently before this trip. And it was really interesting to hear the answer from Scott, who himself was very recently a presidential candidate for Republicans. And he's since dropped out of the race and endorsed Trump.

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TIM SCOTT: President Trump just happens to be right. He reinforces the position of the American people.

GRISALES: And Graham says he disagrees when Trump says Congress should not do anything on this until after the election. He's still holding out hope for a solution. But it's a very difficult situation and a huge reminder of what influence Trump has on the Republican Party to this day.

SUMMERS: NPR congressional correspondent Claudia Grisales reporting from Eagle Pass, Texas. Claudia, thank you.

GRISALES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Claudia Grisales is a congressional reporter assigned to NPR's Washington Desk.