By Alexander Bolton - 11/20/09 11:00 AM EST
Senate Democratic leaders are resting their hopes for bipartisan climate change legislation on the unlikely partnership of Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).
The revelation this fall that the two lawmakers shared a strong bond and a commitment to work together on one of the biggest policy issues facing Congress shocked many of their Senate colleagues.
They are ideological opposites who took very public, antagonist roles in the past two presidential contests.
Kerry, a Massachusetts liberal, challenged President George W. Bush with an anti-war campaign in 2004 and strongly backed President Barack Obama during the 2008 campaign.
Graham, a South Carolina Republican who served as a prosecutor in former President Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial, was an enthusiastic Bush supporter in 2004 and served as Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) close confidant during last year’s presidential election.
Kerry is tall and somber-looking with a deep voice. Graham is shorter, softer-spoken and possesses a Southern drawl.
But none of that stopped the two men from teaming up last month on an op-ed that announced their plans to work together on a comprehensive climate change bill and a declaration that their partnership could net 60 votes in the Senate.
“If you asked me if I saw it coming, I would have said no,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who will play a central role in the climate change debate.
As it turns out, Kerry and Graham share a number of things in common that set the partnership in motion.
They both are fans of the “Pink Panther” films, featuring the late Peter Sellers as the bumbling French Inspector Clouseau.
They both are former prosecutors and military men — Kerry served on a Navy swift boat in Vietnam, while Graham is still a colonel, serving as a judge advocate general instructor, in the Air Force Reserves.
They like to work out in the Senate gym in the Russell building.
And like many lasting friendships, theirs began over a meal.
Kerry invited Graham and a few other senators over to his hme for dinner. Kerry remembered the event happening “three or four years” ago. He said it was a dinner for the prime minister of Pakistan and that Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and former Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) also attended.
He vividly remembers Graham getting a kick out of playing with his wife’s dog, a German schnauzer named Clouseau.
“We joked about that, because we share an affinity for Clouseau movies,” Kerry said.
“He’s good company, a good guy,” said Kerry. “The time I most got to know him was at the dinner. We broke bread and had a chance to talk and Teresa enjoyed his company a lot and he enjoyed talking to her. We then had a very enjoyable series of conversations.”
After that dinner, Kerry and Graham began to work together more often on legislative issues. They collaborated on 2006 legislation setting up military tribunals to try suspected terrorists and applying the law to outside contractors in Iraq. They also worked together on immigration reform.
But their teamwork failed to garner much notice outside the Senate. One political adviser close to Kerry said the relationship between the Massachusetts lawmaker and Graham was “nonexistent.”
A longtime former aide to Graham said he could not remember his former boss doing much work with Kerry.
But a match on climate change legislation made sense for many reasons. Kerry considers climate change one of his most important legislative objectives. Kerry and his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, co-authored a book about the modern environmentalist movement, 2007’s This Moment on Earth.
Colleagues say that Kerry was also looking for a big legislative achievement. After 24 years in the Senate, he did not have a signature law with his name on it, something that produced some awkwardness on the campaign trail in 2004 when aides tried to frame the reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act as a notable achievement.
Graham was looking for a way to boost the role of the nuclear industry, which has two major plants in South Carolina, in the national energy economy.
Graham has made expanded reliance on nuclear energy one of his chief demands in the climate change debate, something that would be a boon to the major employers back home, such as the Oconee Nuclear Station, located five miles from where Graham grew up. The Savannah River Site, which is an important national center for recycling nuclear waste, located near the Georgia border, would also benefit.
Kerry and Graham talked informally several times, on the Senate floor and even at the Senate gym, about a potential partnership.
“We finally met in my office and came to agreement and moved very rapidly,” Kerry said.
Kerry identified Graham as a potential ally during the last Senate debate over climate change, when the chamber considered legislation sponsored by Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.), who was a Democrat at the time, and John Warner, a centrist Republican on the Environment and Public Works Committee.
Graham voted against the Lieberman-Warner bill but said during floor debate that Congress needed to solve the problem of global climate change.
Graham recalled how Kerry approached him after the vote.
“He listened to the debate and said, ‘I appreciate your interest’ and he said, ‘We need to recast this debate and I’m going to be involved and I need somebody that will work with me to get the debate restarted,’ ” Graham recalled.
Graham acknowledged that he and Kerry have often butted heads in public.
“I spent most of my time on TV against John Kerry, arguing in the presidential campaign. We did everything but the Food Channel,” Graham said. “I respect John. He’s a liberal Democrat and I’m a conservative Republican, but we try to find common ground.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is resting his hopes on Kerry and Graham, who have also teamed up with Lieberman, for getting climate change legislation through the Senate. It looks as though Democrats may pass healthcare reform without any Republican votes, but that does not appear to be possible with climate change legislation because of the strong reservations of Democrats from coal- and oil-and-gas-rich states over a cap-and-trade policy.
Reid told a group of lobbyists at a breakfast meeting last week that the success of climate change legislation lay with Kerry and Graham.
“Reid said the bill is in the hands of Kerry and Graham,” said a person who attended the meeting.