As Senate Democrats on Tuesday pushed their health care bill closer to final passage, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina derided the legislative process as "a joke" but told NPR that lessons learned could foster renewed bipartisanship on the issue of energy independence.
"I feel terrible about the process," the Republican senator told host Robert Siegel. "Quite frankly, I think it's a joke. They want 60 votes more than they want a quality bill."
The health legislation passed a second 60-vote test early Tuesday, as senators voted along party lines to shut off debate and approved an amendment by Majority Leader Harry Reid that drops a government-run insurance plan and tightens restrictions on using federal funds for abortions.
Democrats say they are confident the Senate will pass health overhaul legislation by Christmas. But Republicans have blasted earmarks in the bill aimed at reeling in support from fence-sitting Democrats.
Graham was particularly critical of concessions won by Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NE) in exchange for his crucial 60th vote. Nelson got an agreement that the federal government will pay to expand Medicaid services in Nebraska.
"It's OK for a senator from any state to advocate for their state. Once the federal government puts money on the table in an appropriate fashion, it's OK to go get your fair share," Graham said.
"What I don't think is OK is for a senator to basically agree to a bill that increases taxes on 49 states and say, 'I will vote for the bill if you exempt my state,' " he said. "That's crossing the line."
Graham questioned the constitutionality of such a move and said other states "can't afford to bear" the burden for more Medicaid coverage in Nebraska.
But the South Carolina Republican said the lesson from the months-long, bitterly divisive debate on a health care overhaul is that "we're not going to do another bill with one or two Republicans and a bunch of Democrats." Graham said that could open the way for a bipartisan effort to promote carbon-neutral energy sources as part of a broader effort to promote energy independence.
"A billion dollars a day is sent overseas from Americans to buy oil from countries in the Mideast and other places who don't like us very much," he said. "I'd like to stop that, and that means we need to become energy independent. I'd also like to clean up the environment, and I'm willing to work with Republicans and Democrats to become energy independent and create green jobs."
Graham's remarks come after the U.N. climate summit in Copenhagen ended without a substantive agreement to limit greenhouse gases. Many congressional Republicans and some Democrats are strongly opposed to Washington signing onto any agreement to limit emissions. Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) has gone so far as to label the idea that global warming is tied to human activity as a hoax, but it is widely accepted by climate scientists around the world as the best explanation of observed temperature increases in modern times.
"I believe the planet is warming up," Graham said.
"How much man is contributing to this climate change, I don't know. But it makes perfect sense to me that all the carbon pollution spewed out day in and day out from all the cars and trucks and power plants for the last 60, 70, 80 years is not a good thing."
Graham acknowledged that getting Republicans on board with a "cap and trade" system in which carbon polluters would pay a penalty that would go toward promoting green energy alternatives would be difficult, but he said he hopes to "recast the debate."
"I'm going to try my best to find middle ground between the energy independence movement and the carbon pollution control movement and see if we can patch together a bill that would create jobs," the senator said.
Graham also called for a "renaissance of nuclear power" — 50 to 100 new U.S. plants over the next few decades that "would create millions of new jobs ... that would be a great source of jobs that wouldn't go to China."