Democrats are putting President Obama's energy and climate agenda in peril by making a partisan push this week to pass health care, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) warned yesterday.
"If they do this, it's going to poison the well for anything else they would like to achieve this year or thereafter," Graham said on ABC's "This Week."
Graham said that he is still upbeat about the talks with Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) on legislation that would put a price on greenhouse gas emissions and expand domestic oil, gas and nuclear energy production. But he said those efforts could be undermined because of the push to pass health care in the Senate through the budget reconciliation process that requires a 51-vote majority.
"I've been working with Lieberman and Kerry, we've come a long way on the climate and energy issue," Graham said. "This is one issue where the president has been great. He's saying all the right things to give us a chance to become energy independent, clean up the air and create jobs. But when it comes to health care, he's been tone deaf, he's been arrogant, and they're pushing a legislative proposal and a way to do that legislative proposal that's going to destroy the ability of this country to work together for a very long time. And that's not necessary."
Graham, who is also working with congressional Democrats on immigration legislation and the push to close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, suggested a "better way" to maintain bipartisanship on Capitol Hill.
"Get a field goal, Mr. President, on health care, and then let's go to energy and climate," Graham said. "Do financial regulations. And let's try to work together to reform our laws and close GITMO."
White House officials said yesterday they were confident Obama would sign the health care bill into law by next weekend. "This is the week where we will have this important vote," Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs said on CBS's "Face the Nation."
Under the Democrats' health care strategy, the House will vote first on the Senate-passed legislation. Both chambers will then make a series of changes to the underlying Senate bill via the budget reconciliation process.
Kerry on Friday sidestepped a question about whether the Democrats' moves on health care would make it hard to find Republican votes on climate change. "We have to try to proceed forward as confidently as we can," Kerry said. "I'm not going to predict the future. It's too much up in the air. I don't think anyone can predict with accuracy what's going to happen on anything."
Jeremy Symons, senior vice president for policy at the National Wildlife Federation, insisted the issues should remain separate. "Senators shouldn't squander this opportunity for real energy reform because they are angry on other topics," he said. "Think where our nation would be if Congress called it quits every time parties fight over one issue. Nothing would ever get done."
Conservatives say the climate bill was already in trouble, and Graham's remarks reflect the political reality that health care will make the talks even harder.
"There's no question that Democrats are playing a risky game on a wide variety of policy fronts by employing reconciliation and driving Republicans away from any opportunity to work with them in a bipartisan way," said Eric Ueland, who served as chief of staff to former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.).
"They can continue to negotiate and try to come up with a deal for next year, but it's a realization from Senator Graham that it's not going to happen this year," said Andrew Wheeler, former staff director for Senate Environment and Public Works Committee ranking member James Inhofe (R-Okla).
Graham's remarks also raise the question of whether he will remain in the negotiations with Kerry and Lieberman if Democrats pursue health care via reconciliation.
Kerry said he does not think Graham will walk. "Lindsey has said we're going to proceed forward on this," Kerry said. "He's invested time, effort, energy and he believes in the importance of it. He's not going to do that."
Graham's spokesman, Kevin Bishop, said his boss's comments "are self-explanatory."
Kerry, Graham and Lieberman are expected to meet this week with more key swing-vote senators, as well as major industry trade groups. Kerry on Friday also said the trio may wait until after the spring recess to release their draft legislation.