Sen. Lindsey Graham sees himself as a possible 60th vote on the comprehensive energy and climate bill.
But the South Carolina Republican doubts the debate will even get that far, at least in the current political atmosphere that includes a ripening battle over immigration and uncertainty over the causes of the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
"All I can tell you is everything you need to grow the vote in the last couple of weeks has been missing," he said in an interview yesterday.
Graham two weeks ago threw a major league curveball into the prospects for the climate bill when he backed out of seven months of negotiations with Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.). He blames the Obama administration and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) for playing politics on the climate bill by pushing immigration onto this year's agenda.
He also thinks the White House left him hanging when unnamed administration officials criticized what FOX News called "Graham's gasoline tax gambit" -- a reference to the "linked fee" idea that he had floated as a way to control greenhouse gas emissions from transportation fuels.
For now, Graham says he has "paused" from the talks with Kerry and Lieberman because he does not see a path forward to get enough votes in light of immigration and the oil spill. And that means he probably won't be at the legislation's unveiling, which is expected as early as next week.
"He'll be there in spirit and substance but probably not with us," Lieberman said yesterday.
On the oil spill, Graham said he is concerned the bill is losing ground because Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) earlier this week declared an expansion for offshore drilling "dead on arrival." Graham said he is worried about the environmental catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, but he does not see it as reason enough to stop drilling altogether.
"It makes me nervous as an American," Graham said of the spill. "But the images of my dollars going overseas to fuel terrorism is real to me because I go to Iraq and Afghanistan. And the images of thousands of tankers crossing the ocean every day, I realize. So I put it in perspective. I think the president has."
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs yesterday insisted that Obama has kept up his end of the negotiations with Graham. And he said he was hopeful Graham returns to his role as a key player and top spokesman for the climate issue.
"I can't speak for where Senator Graham is today," Gibbs said. "I can simply speak for what he asked the president to do and what the president did to keep his word and his commitment. ... I think there's a lot of progress that has been made on energy legislation, and I don't think anybody -- Democrat, Republican, or independent in Joe Lieberman's case -- wants to see that work and that commitment walked away from."
Meanwhile, some senators are just plain confused considering Graham still talks up the climate and energy issue, even as he sits out the negotiations.
"I think it's like the Hokey Pokey," said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas). "You put your right foot in. You take your right foot out. I'm not sure where he is right now."
Here is an edited transcript of the interview:
E&E Daily: What were you trying to say earlier this week when you declared about the climate bill: 'I'm in this to win?'
Graham: What I was saying was the status quo is terrible for America. Cap and trade is dead. And I've got to see a pathway forward where you can get 60 votes. The oil spill hasn't made things easier, it's made things harder. And when you look at the number of senators who've dug in; one senator said, "Energy-climate bill dead on arrival" because of the drilling provisions.
I think we need to have a time-out here. Find out what happened with the oil spill. Figure out where we're going to go on immigration politics and make a reasoned decision. Next year, the EPA begins to regulate carbon. So the issue never goes away. I'm not interested in putting a bill out and there's no chance of being successful. Right now, with the oil spill, it's pretty hard to talk about the future of oil exploration until you know what happened.
E&E Daily: Are you in or out of the negotiations with Kerry and Lieberman?
Graham: I'm paused. Simply because I've got to see a pathway forward. Immigration politics is taking a lot of my time. I'd like to know what we're going to do on immigration. One day the president says, "It's too big a lift." The next day he says, "We're going to start." I don't know what that means.
E&E Daily: It appears the administration is saying not this year on immigration?
Graham: I'd wish they'd just say that. It'd be a relief to know.
E&E Daily: But they can't necessarily do that because of politics?
Graham: Well, you know what, their problem becomes everyone's problem. So I'm dealing with the immigration issue. What is the plan? I've got a plan on immigration. Border security. Next year we'll take it up. But forget about immigration. There's something new here. The Gulf is on fire. And I cannot support an emissions control bill that doesn't have an energy independence vision. And safe drilling is part of this vision I have. But I understand you've got to prove to people that it can be done safely after the accident.
E&E Daily: It sounds like Kerry and Lieberman are talking about taking out the drilling language, but then again, maybe they'll leave it in just as you negotiated it?
Graham: As I said before, I realize that drilling politics has changed. But the need for offshore exploration is still there because of our dependency on OPEC oil. If we abandon drilling, OPEC becomes the biggest winner. And that's the whole reason for getting involved in this bill. It's not a global warming bill to me. Because global warming as a reason to pass legislation doesn't exist anymore. What does exist is the EPA regulation of carbon is unacceptable to most members. And energy independence, jobs and clean air really are the reasons why people would get involved in a bipartisan way. There is no bipartisan support for a cap-and-trade bill based on global warming. There is bipartisan support in the future, at the right time and in the right circumstances, for an energy independence legislation, green job creation and clean air.
E&E Daily: You told Washington Post columnist Ezra Klein last week that you think a climate and energy bill could pass this year. Do you still think that?
Graham: If business got behind it, and everything fell together. Well, the reality is, since I've talked to Ezra, everything's gone the other way. The oil spill has grown.
E&E Daily: Harry Reid said earlier this week the oil spill could be an impetus for people to think about alternatives to fossil fuels.
Graham: See, I don't know what that means in English.
E&E Daily: He's essentially making the same kind of connection that environmentalists say happened with the Exxon Valdez, which helped pass the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments?
Graham: If that means we abandon drilling. I don't know what that means. I do know one Democrat said our legislation is "Dead on Arrival."
E&E Daily: Sen. Bill Nelson was referring to the Obama Interior Department moratorium.
Graham: No, he said the energy and climate bill was dead on arrival.
E&E Daily: He said the Obama plan was DOA, and then he said he'd filibuster any offshore expansion for Florida that's in legislation.
Graham: Our bill would expand the potential to drill because of revenue sharing. I believe revenue sharing has to be part of any drilling plan. If it's not part of any drilling plan, I won't support it. And critics of drilling say that's an expansion. I disagree.
E&E Daily: So if you lose those two or three Democrats on drilling, couldn't you pick up a couple more with the drilling language?
Graham: You tell me how to get to 60. Kerry-Graham-Lieberman is still Kerry-Graham-Lieberman. No one's come on board. It's a great effort.
E&E Daily: But senators say they won't come on board until you put it out?
Graham: At the end of the day, people are against the idea of drilling expansion. I want to know can I fix that problem. I don't want to assume I can fix the problem. I live in a coastal state. I want to be able to go to South Carolina and tell people that my vision of offshore exploration makes sense. And I can't do that until I find out what happened. I know the vision makes sense in terms of our overall need for oil is not going to go away. And our energy dependence gets greater over time. Quite frankly, I applaud the president. I think he's had a really good approach to this in terms of not overreacting, but saying we're going to stop until we know what happened."
E&E Daily: Do the images of the birds and the turtles make you nervous as a South Carolinian with a shoreline?
Graham: It makes me nervous as an American. But the images of my dollars going overseas to fuel terrorism is real to me because I go to Iraq and Afghanistan. And the images of thousands of tankers crossing the ocean every day, I realize. So I put it in perspective. I think the president has. But the goal is to grow the vote. And the question I have is: Has the last couple of weeks with immigration and the oil spills helped to grow the vote? And the answer is no.
E&E Daily: Kerry and Lieberman say they're probably going to put it out without you, and you're OK with that?
Graham: I'm OK. I really appreciate what we've done together. I've just got to be confident that it makes sense for it to be successful. And yes, if they feel like they want to roll out the product, if they want to change the product, that's their prerogative. But it goes back to this concept of growing the vote, right?
E&E Daily: Senator Kerry says you'll vote for the bill when it comes to the floor. Is that accurate?
Graham: I tell you what, let me tell you, if it doesn't get substantially changed, and I don't know how it's going to change, but I could see myself being the 60th vote for an energy-independent, job creation, clean air bill. It's pretty clear that I found it's something I can be for. The question is, can you get 59 other people for it? And I'm certainly open-minded, if it's brought to the floor, I'll look forward to the debate, I'll look forward to helping my colleagues keep intact what we preserved, listening to my colleagues about how to make it better.
But I'm not interested in a political debate. I'm interested in a serious effort to do something. And when immigration got put on the table, that shook my confidence that we're serious. And with the oil spill in front of us, still spewing out oil, it makes it very difficult for me to imagine that we can answer everyone's questions in an intelligent way.
E&E Daily: Are Judd Gregg, Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins and the other moderate Republicans in play?
Graham: You need to talk to them.
E&E Daily: But you are the Republican who people had hoped would bring them along?
Graham: Well, it's not just me bringing on my other colleagues. Yes, it's a good question. Can we, the three of us, with business support, and White House support, and a lot of people's support, grow the vote? Right now, my colleagues are worried about the unknown nature of the oil spill. I can't say they're wrong. When someone says I need to know what's going to happen with the oil spill before I commit to anything, that makes perfect sense to me. I know where I'm at on offshore exploration. Some people have had their confidence shaken. I'd like to restore their confidence and that's going to take some time.
Some people on our side are not sure about the carbon emissions. Well, I want to make sure they understand what we're trying to do and it's not cap and trade. At the end of the day, we're in a political environment. If you had any doubt about how political this body is, taking up immigration in this body is the ultimate act of politics, and so here we are. I hope we can be successful on something that we're doing. And if, at the end of the day, you've got to grow that vote and when people suggest the oil spill is a major problem that needs to be solved before we can advance further, I understand what they're telling me.
E&E Daily: You've complained about the administration officials quoted last month in a FOX News story on the "linked fee" for transportation fuels, saying they didn't support the "Graham gas tax?"
Graham: Do you think that happened by accident? Nothing happens around here, generally speaking, by accident. I'm still talking to the White House. I get over things pretty quickly. But it did, as I told Ezra Klein, it was not a confidence builder.
E&E Daily: Do you really think that's the message the administration wanted to get out with that story?
Graham: It made sense if you wanted to head off what you thought was going to be an argument and you really weren't going to embrace the bill completely. So it was a lack of confidence. You've got to hold hands and do this thing together. That was not a confidence-inspiring measure. I don't know how you'd read it otherwise. I'd imagine these two guys [Kerry and Lieberman] would have felt the same way if the Bush White House had done that. It wasn't confidence-inspiring. Immigration being dropped in the Friday before the bill was to be announced wasn't confidence-inspiring.
E&E Daily: But the White House put out a statement right after saying it didn't think your bill had a "gas tax."
Graham: Come on. I don't believe Rahm [Emanuel] or David [Axelrod] did do it. We wanted Harry [Reid] to say the transportation sector was OK. We're still waiting on that. We'll see where Harry's at on this thing.
E&E Daily: BP had been expected at the press conference you were planning to have last Monday. Are you glad that didn't happen in light of the oil spill?
Graham: In a way. For every bad thing, there's maybe an upside. If we'd have rolled the bill out, the first thing you'd have asked us about was immigration. No. 2, it'd have been about the oil spill. It'd all have been about BP and what are you doing about the oil spill.
And I know politics well enough to know when you roll something big out, you'd better have the playing field well set. And you need to have everything lined up. And all I can tell you is everything you need to grow the vote in the last couple of weeks has been missing.