Sen. Lindsey Graham spent his summer testing out lines on global warming.
As the Republican hit the town halls in South Carolina, a state with a major military presence and one of the country's highest unemployment rates, Graham would ask people if they thought climate change was a problem.
But Graham quickly followed with another question, asking for a show of hands from those concerned about energy security. The response was strong, and Graham wasted little time making the connection.
"You can't look at it in isolation," Graham said in an interview last week. "I'm trying to say, OK, you're skeptical about global warming, you're worried about the compliance costs, and you think maybe there's not much benefit to the environment. I'm not there, but I respect that.
"What if I took something you agree with, that this country had a lot of resources that need to be explored and extracted, and every barrel of oil that we can find off South Carolina with South Carolina's permission, and natural gas deposits, make us more energy independent?" he added. "What if you married those two things up? And took some of the revenue from oil and gas exploration and put it toward reducing our carbon dependency? I think that's a deal that a lot of people would go for. You don't have to be a true believer of drilling offshore or that climate change is real. You've just got to be willing to give and take."
Graham's desire to trade energy provisions for his support on a major climate bill has won him audiences with leading Senate Democrats and the Obama administration. And while few of his fellow Republicans are willing to make such a leap, Graham is.
And that is why he landed Sunday on a very public stage -- The New York Times op-ed page -- publishing an article about possible legislative compromises with Sen. John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat who has taken his party's lead in negotiations on the climate bill.
The two lawmakers signaled where there is room to negotiate on hot-button issues like nuclear power and domestic offshore drilling for oil and natural gas. And they pledged to form a partnership that has longtime advocates for climate legislation thinking they have found a missing ingredient in the search for crossing the 60-vote threshold needed to defeat a Senate filibuster.
"I know him well enough to know when he's kind of watching something and when he's begun to commit to make a difference here," said Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), who has taken a leading role with Graham in negotiations on nuclear power. "And he's committed now on this. I don't mean he's signed on, but he wants to find a way. And if he's involved, I think he'll reassure others."
"Frankly," Lieberman added, "He may not only reassure and bring on Republicans. But he may reassure some moderate Democrats."
Traveling with McCain
Graham's conversion to a potential Democratic ally on climate change has been taking place quietly for several years.
In 2003 and again in 2005, Graham voted against Senate climate legislation authored by two of his closest friends in the chamber: Lieberman and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). Last summer, Graham sided with Republican leaders against moving ahead on a climate bill from Lieberman and then-Sen. John Warner (R-Va.).
But Graham has also taken steps in the other direction, placing him among a handful of moderate Republicans that E&E counts as on the fence when looking at a possible path to 60 votes.
In 2006, Graham cosponsored a bill with Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) that would have set mandatory limits on several traditional air pollutants and carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. And before the 2008 presidential primaries, Graham said South Carolina voters were concerned about global warming because of its effect on hunting and recreational opportunities.
"I can't imagine a nominee for either major party arguing to the public that climate change is not real and man is not contributing to it," he said in February 2007. "If they take that position, the public is going to really question their judgment."
Graham credits his entry into the climate debate in large part to McCain, whose one-time energy aide, Matt Rimkunas, has worked for Graham since 2005. The two lawmakers have made trips together to see first hand the effects of climate change at the North Pole, in Norway and Alaska.
"I've been to every cold place that's not as cold as it used to be," Graham said. "Common sense tells me, just as acid rain became a problem because of pollutants going up into the atmosphere, this much carbon for this long a period of time has to have some effect. And I've just come to the conclusion that it has."
There are other factors for Graham's interest in the issue. His home state has four existing nuclear power reactors, with another four in the planning stages and possibly online by 2015. Graham often cites the pro-environment views of many religious and faith-based groups in his home state. And he regularly repeats that South Carolinians under age 30 are the firmest believers in the science linking man-made emissions to climate change.
Like Kerry, Graham also enjoys making the connection between energy and climate change to his military credentials, which include a rank of colonel in the Air Force Reserve and several short active duty stints in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"I really do believe that our energy dependence, that as much as we rely on foreign oil as a national security nightmare, I believe that climate change is real and it's going to affect the food supply over time, and it's going to make the world even a much more dangerous place.
"It's not just me saying it," Graham added. "A bunch of generals are saying it. So I think there's a lot of national security reasons that you'd want to control greenhouse gases. A lot of national security reasons you'd want to get more independent when it comes to finding your own energy."
As for McCain, the 2008 presidential nominee said he did not mind ceding the spotlight to his friend. "He's like a son to me," McCain said.
Graham has also made a habit out of upsetting conservatives.
His work on immigration in 2007 with the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) prompted a longtime state GOP official to challenge him in the 2008 primary. Graham was among the first Republicans to publicly commit to vote for the confirmation of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. And he lit up the conservative blogs earlier this month by brushing off FOX News commentator Glenn Beck's criticism about President Obama.
"You can listen to him if you like," Graham said of Beck. "I choose not to because, quite frankly, I don't want to go down the road of thinking our best days are behind us."
So longtime observers of Graham's career are not surprised by his recent emergence as a possible Democratic ally on global warming.
"I don't think he's ever met a Democrat he didn't like," said David Woodard, a Clemson University political science professor who ran Graham's successful House campaigns in 1994 and 1996.
And they also see Graham distancing himself from fellow South Carolina Republican Sen. Jim DeMint, who earlier this summer sounded a far different note when it came to health care and the president's agenda.
"If we're able to stop Obama on this it will be his Waterloo, it will break him," DeMint said.
On climate change, the two senators may represent the same state. But they are not on the same page.
"The science is certainly inconclusive that CO2 raises temperature," DeMint said last week. "If you look at global temperature over the last 10 years, you cannot make a case. That does not mean we do not need to continue all efforts to clean up the environment and lower emissions. But the legislation doesn't lower emissions. Even the people who designed it agree with that. It's more of a federal power grab. So what we need to do is continue to work on alternatives."
"I respect that, but I completely disagree," Graham countered. "See, from Jim's point of view, if you didn't think this was a problem, you wouldn't do this. I respect that. And there are people in South Carolina with that point of view. And I'm not one of them."
Graham also is in a different place when it comes to working with the Obama administration. Last week, he said he would urge the president to set up working groups on various issues still needing to be resolved on the energy and climate front. And he insisted that he would vote for a bill even if led to a major victory for the president.
"I'd like to solve a problem, and if it's on President Obama's watch, it doesn't bother me one bit if it makes the country better off," Graham said.
Mike Couick, president of the Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina, said he welcomed the differences between his two senators.
"You need to have a certain amount of pressure from folks like DeMint in order to make folks like Graham effective," Couick said. "It's all part of the mix. There's a continuum. Somehow, the truth has to fall out somewhere between the two."
In the clear for five years?
Politically, Graham may be in the perfect spot to be working with Democrats on a climate bill. After all, the 54-year-old senator is not up for re-election to a third term until 2014.
"From a distance of five years away, he's in a very safe position," said Robert Oldendick, director of the Institute for Public Service and Policy Research at the University of South Carolina. Oldendick added that Graham has compensated for losses on his right in past elections by winning over centrist Democrats. It has also helped that he hasn't faced a formidable opponent.
But Clemson University's Woodard warns that Graham may be asking for trouble the next time he's in cycle should he continue to stray from the Republican conservative base. "He's pretty much been a cat of nine lives in the way he's done this frequently," he said.
For now, some top South Carolina business officials say they welcome Graham's role in the climate debate, especially given the inevitable prospect of U.S. EPA regulations once the agency follows through with the 2007 Supreme Court decision in Massachusetts v. EPA.
"Trying to find a legislative compromise is in the best interest of business, more so than just fighting it all the way down the line if it is going to happen," said Otis Rawl, executive director of the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce. "And it appears to me it's going to happen."
Rawl said he is uneasy about cap-and-trade legislation, but the inclusion of nuclear power and energy exploration provisions help.
As for the political consequences, "the right will criticize him for being too left and not being what he's supposed to," Rawl said. "But if you don't work both sides of the aisle, you get nothing out of it."
Environmental groups in South Carolina say they too are pulling for Graham, though they are also taking a wait-and-see stance on what comes out of the negotiations with Democrats over nuclear power.
"We're sort of seeing where it's going to go," said Steve Moore, director of climate and energy programs at the South Carolina Wildlife Federation. "We all realize [nuclear] is going to be part of the mix. We're trying to let him know we're not totally opposed to that. As a committee, we've not gelled on that, as we haven't nationally."
"Graham is really looked to with a lot of respect as someone who seeks common ground on both sides of the aisle," added John Ramsburgh, the climate and energy director for the Conservation Voters of South Carolina. "We are generally very pleased to have him as our senior senator."
Political observers in South Carolina say there is some additional positives for Graham taking center stage on climate change. Many welcome his status representing the state to the country given the recent adultery scandal that made national news involving Gov. Mark Sanford (R).
"The positive symbolism those kinds of things represent work to his advantage," Oldendick said.
Going forward, Oldendick expects Graham to play down the Obama angle as he works on the climate bill. Politically, he said it would be better for Graham to tout his home state's interests to expand nuclear power and help low-income residents cope with the higher energy costs associated with the bill.
"There's enough of that in the way the legislation will play out that he can position himself so that dealing with the problem becomes the story, instead of helping Obama," Oldendick said.
Graham last week said he is working to contain any potential political fallout that comes from him working with Democrats on an energy and climate bill.
"I need the nuclear people to say that the title that Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman have come up with is a good one," the senator said. "I need business people to say we can comply with these emission standards given the things Congress has set aside from us. And I need the energy independence, national security operatives to say this is a breakthrough in energy independence. And I need the environmentalists to say this emission control standard is reasonable."
"We're trying," Graham added, "to get them lined up."
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