By Alexander Bolton - 05/28/10 10:00 AM EDT
Sen. Lindsey Graham warns that President Barack Obama will kill the last hopes for comprehensive energy and climate change legislation if he cracks down on offshore oil drilling.
In a sit-down interview with The Hill, the Republican senator from South Carolina said he is at a “crossroads” in deciding how to proceed on energy and climate change.
“Why would a person who really believes in drilling put a bill on the floor right now to expand drilling and revenue sharing, knowing it can’t get 50 votes?” Graham said. “The resistance to drilling has hardened on the Democratic side, so we [Republicans have] got more votes to make up.”
Graham predicts that 10 to 12 Democrats will oppose the drilling provision he originally negotiated in the energy bill, undermining the reason he joined talks in the first place: to reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign oil.
In his press conference Thursday, Obama called on Congress to pass the climate change and energy bill this year.
“This disaster should serve as a wake-up call that it’s time to move forward on this legislation,” Obama said, citing the spill.
Graham spent months negotiating the legislation with Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.).
He refused to join Kerry and Lieberman when they rolled out the 1,000-page bill earlier this month, in protest of a decision by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to also move comprehensive immigration reform this summer.
Lieberman said he hoped that Graham would re-join him after a “brief sabbatical,” but that chance is looking remote after as many as 500,000 barrels of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico from the wreckage of the Deepwater Horizon.
“I don’t think I can get what I wanted as part of the deal,” said Graham, in reference to the drilling provisions. “It’s no fault to Kerry and Lieberman. Harry Reid didn’t create this problem. This problem was created by BP.”
He said he would withhold final judgment until next month, when he’ll have a better sense of the political fallout from the spill.
On Thursday, Obama ordered a freeze on exploratory wells being drilled in the Gulf, canceled a proposed lease sale off the coast of Virginia and suspended energy exploration off the coast of Alaska. In late March, the president had announced plans to expand offshore drilling.
Political opinion has swung forcefully against expanded offshore drilling in the wake of the spill in the Gulf.
Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), who supported the lease sale off his home state’s shores, said he backed Obama’s decision. Sen. Olympia Snowe (Maine), a crucial Republican swing vote on the climate bill, said the Gulf accident had created a crisis of confidence in drilling procedures and technology.
Graham believes this has sapped his rationale for convincing fellow Republicans to support the comprehensive energy and climate change legislation.
“If I go back into conference, what would I tell them?” he said.
He fears addressing comprehensive energy and climate legislation now could set in stone regulations for oil drilling at a time when support for it is at a low.
He also argues that failure on the Senate floor could stigmatize the innovative hybrid approach that he, Kerry and Lieberman negotiated to put a price on carbon emissions.
He opposes bringing immigration reform to the floor for a similar reason — failure could stigmatize the effort.
Graham said he warned Obama to proceed carefully when the president met with the Senate GOP conference earlier this week.
“I’ve told the president in a kind way that we have one last chance on immigration. If we put it on the floor and it gets 45 votes, nobody will touch this for a decade,” he said.
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) is still holding out hope for a comprehensive reform package and even mentioned Graham’s name during a floor speech touting it.
“Sen. Schumer just on the floor said, ‘Me and Sen. Graham are working on comprehensive immigration reform,’ ” Graham said. “I just heard it for the first time.”
Schumer specifically touted a national identification card that he said had worked on with Graham.
Graham’s firm stance means it will be significantly tougher — if not virtually impossible — for Obama to muster 60 votes for his two biggest remaining policy initiatives.
Graham batted down various theories for the sudden freeze in his relations with Democrats.
He downplayed theories that he is scrambling to restore relations with angry conservatives.
And he refuted speculation that he is shielding his close friend Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) from voting on climate change reform or immigration reform — proposals McCain supported earlier in his career. The Arizona senator faces a tough primary challenge this year.
Graham argues the energy and climate bill could be a windfall for his state because of new federal assistance for renewable and nuclear energy production.
“This could be a revenue stream for us for decades to come,” he said.
But conservative critics in South Carolina say his work with Kerry is the primary reason two county Republican parties in the state voted to censure him in the past year.
“We just feel that Sen. Graham is a Republican in name only,” said Mike Brady, a registered Republican and executive director of the Tea Party organization in Boiling Springs, S.C.
Brady, who joined other conservatives in a heated meeting with Graham in March, discounted promises of new jobs and revenues for the state.
“A tax is a tax is a tax,” Brady said of the proposal to make carbon emissions more costly to industry.
Allen Olson, a member of the Columbia Tea Party of South Carolina who left the GOP after 2008, called Graham a Republican in name only and pledged to remind voters to stay angry at Graham in 2014, when he is up for reelection.
Graham, however, says he won’t change. He believes 25 percent of Republicans and 25 percent of Democrats don’t want their parties to negotiate with each other at all.
“My brand is being conservative yet willing to be bipartisan,” he said. “People who like me appreciate that I’m conservative and try to find common ground.”
But Graham says his willingness to compromise has limits. He’s not willing to spend his political capital on lost causes, which is what he thinks the energy bill is in danger of becoming and the immigration bill has become, at least this year.
“What it doesn’t make sense for me to do is to push legislation that has no chance in heck of going anywhere,” he said. “The way I survive and become valuable is to be able to … sit down and solve a problem.”
Graham also insists he can still be a helpful ally to the administration. He says he has stayed in close touch with White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who put much hope in Graham at the beginning of the 111th Congress.
Emanuel courted Graham intensively, bringing him to the Oval Office for a private chat with the president. The effort paid off a little on Tuesday when Obama met with Senate Republicans in the Capitol. Graham acted as mediator between his irate colleagues and Obama, who also grew testy at times.
Graham says he can continue to be useful as a back channel.
“After the lunch Tuesday, there’s a lot of tension up here; we kept lines of communication open,” he said of himself and Emanuel.