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WASHINGTON – Sen. Lindsey Graham makes no pretense about it. He wants to be where the action is.

“I’m in the center of a lot of important debates – I like that,” Graham, the South Carolina Republican who has carved out a role for himself as this city’s resident maverick, said in an interview on Monday. “I want to be a conservative who can put conservative principles in play on hard issues.”

So Graham, a cherubic-looking 54-year-old, has been busy this year, reaching out to Democrats in an effort to broker deals on hot-button issues like energy and immigration and closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay. As the lone member of his party who is consistently willing to cross the aisle, he has filled a niche once occupied by his close friend and mentor, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

Now, though, Graham’s position as the go-to Republican for the Obama White House is in doubt.

Over the weekend, he abruptly reversed course, backing out of plans to unveil a long-awaited bipartisan energy bill – a high priority for President Barack Obama. He has scheduled a news conference for Tuesday to urge the Senate Democratic leadership to put off debate on another of his priorities, an immigration overhaul.

Graham says he had received assurances from the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, that energy would come first and accuses him of making a sudden push for immigration – an effort Graham says will only divide the country – to appease Hispanic voters in an election year.

“I was mad, because they brought immigration up in the 11th hour,” the senator said, adding, “If you’re going to do business with people, they’ve got to understand that you can push back.”

His reversal has thrown official Washington into a tizzy, raising questions about his motives. Some Democrats whisper that he must be trying to spare McCain, who is facing a tough primary challenge from the right, an uncomfortable vote on immigration. Others openly surmise that Graham must have caved in to his Republican^ critics. “There has been enormous back pressure against the kind of bipartisan cooperation that Senator Graham has engaged in,” Lawrence Summers, Obama’s top economics adviser, said Sunday on “Face the Nation” on CBS. “And that perhaps has made this a more complex situation and more difficult for him than it would otherwise be.”

Graham says he has not caved in to anybody, but his cross-party cooperation has clearly come at a price. At home, passions are running high. Locals derisively call him “Graham-nesty” for his work on immigration. He has been censured by three chapters of the South Carolina Republican party. At a town hall-style meeting in Greenville, S.C., last fall, constituents angrily shouted him down.