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Louisiana Rep. Garret Graves is playing a pivotal role in debt ceiling talks

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy tapped Louisiana Congressman Garret Graves to lead the Republican team. NPR congressional correspondent Deirdre Walsh reports on how he got the job.

DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: South Dakota Republican Dusty Johnson says people may not have heard of the lawmaker the speaker is trusting to lead negotiations with the White House.

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DUSTY JOHNSON: Garret Graves is anonymous to everyday Americans, and that's exactly the way he wants it.

WALSH: Graves helped McCarthy round up the votes to be elected speaker after 15 ballots and over four days of tense talks. Republican Study Committee Chairman Kevin Hern heads the group of fiscal conservatives and says this about Graves' assignment right now.

KEVIN HERN: You have to appoint people that can sit there and grind this out, and that's what Garret's been charged with doing since, you know, back in January, actually, before there was a debt limit issue.

WALSH: Graves is pushing the speaker's demand to cut the federal budget as part of a deal to increase the country's borrowing authority. Here he is briefing reporters on the talks.

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GARRET GRAVES: The numbers are foundational here. The speaker has been very clear a red line is spending less money. And unless and until we're there, the rest of it is really irrelevant.

WALSH: Graves was elected to the House in 2014. He's now at the leadership table, coordinating strategy with the five House GOP factions, dubbed the five families. Johnson heads the Republican Main Street caucus, centrist GOP lawmakers, and says that trust is the reason that Graves was elevated.

JOHNSON: It's my assessment that Garret Graves has not just the trust of the speaker. He has the trust of the conference, and he has the trust of the five families. That is noteworthy.

WALSH: Ohio Republican David Joyce leads another one of these families, the Republican governance group, a group of moderates. He says Graves has a reputation for playing practical jokes, recalling one he played on former Congressman Rodney Davis.

DAVID JOYCE: He's good at them, so I don't want to sic him on myself. But Rodney Davis - one time at a hearing, they set up an iPad in the level behind him and above him with an arrow that said, doofus.

(LAUGHTER)

JOYCE: Poor Rodney's making his point. Everybody sees doofus. They don't hear a word he's saying.

WALSH: Before he was elected to the house, Graves chaired a state coastal board in Louisiana, overseeing construction of levees and negotiating permits for land restoration. In 2010, he was a trustee for the settlement for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the largest one in U.S. history. Graves' knowledge on energy projects is coming in handy because permitting reforms are a central policy issue in the discussions. Joyce says mastering policy and the politics of the GOP conference is a balancing act.

JOYCE: He's very specific, very detailed, and he's just got a great mind for making sure all the chess pieces are moving on the board.

WALSH: Graves has built some good relationships across the aisle. Shalanda Young, the White House budget director and lead negotiator on the debt, is from his district, and they've collaborated to secure money for infrastructure projects there. Vermont Democratic Senator Peter Welch served eight terms in the House and heaped on praise.

PETER WELCH: Garret is a very effective and skillful person. He's got a great temperament, very smart.

WALSH: If Graves can help broker a deal, he'll likely be called on to help sell it to his party. Johnson says Graves won't be looking for any credit.

JOHNSON: Many members of Congress are desperate to want you to believe that they're the smartest person in the room. That is not Garret Graves. For him, it's about the country. For him, it's about the deal. It is not about getting one more list of accolades on Garret Graves' obituary.

WALSH: But with the clock ticking to get a deal to the president's desk before the country defaults, Graves could also share the blame if things go sideways. Deirdre Walsh, NPR News, the Capitol.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.