Kate Sheppard asks if the passage of health care legislation will hurt or hinder progress on climate legislation. But the underlying question is whether or not Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) is looking for an excuse to bail on climate negotiations. The answer to that question might just be yes. His rhetoric hints at the possibility, and he’s willing to distort the truth about reconciliation without hesitation while huffing and puffing that it leaves him no choice but to bail on unrelated legislation. If Sen. Graham does end up using the passage of health care reform as an excuse to give up on climate talks, his lack of integrity will be readily apparent for all to witness. First, some back story. Last week this National Journal article ($) made me worry:

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, the lone Republican working with Democrats on both immigration and climate change legislation, might walk away from talks on those issues if Senate Democrats use budget reconciliation to pass changes to their healthcare bill in a deal with the House, according to Graham and a leadership aide. … A Senate GOP aide said it was too early to begin worrying that a deal will be struck on a climate bill that would put a price on industrial carbon emissions. But at the same time, aides said stakeholders should consider the impact reconciliation will have on climate legislation and the possibility that the midterm elections could yield more business-friendly Republicans in Congress.

“They should definitely realize there’s not a lot of good reasons to cut a rash deal at this point,” a Republican aide said. “I think they’re going to have a very hard time convincing any Republicans, particularly with reconciliation hanging over their head. It seems like, to me, from a business perspective, they should consider that.”

But since it was National Journal quoting an anonymous republican aide, I didn’t place much weight in it. Was that a mistake? Could Sen. Graham really take such offense to reconciliation that he would scuttle climate talks over it? Sen. Graham emerged last fall as a leading republican in negotiations on clean energy and climate legislation. While he wasn’t ready to support the Boxer-Kerry bill on the table, he expressed confidence in “a pathway forward … that makes us more energy independent, creates sound environmental policy, promotes job creation and frees our nation from dependency on foreign oil.” In the months that followed, as he was attacked by South Carolina republicans over and over again, he continued making the case for clean energy. In early January, responding to being censured by a local county Republican Party, he shot back: “I do believe in finding common ground to solve hard problems.” As recently as the end of January he was still “committed to finding a new path forward.” But in late February, the rhetoric took a turn for the worse:

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In a private meeting with several environmental leaders on Wednesday, according to participants, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), declared, “Cap-and-trade is dead.”

Then on the March 7th edition of Face the Nation, Graham said [PDF]:

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We’ve had reconciliation votes but all of them had received bipartisan support, the least was twelve when we did reconciliation with tax cuts. So it is taking a partisan product and making it law.

It isn’t clear whether he was being disingenuous or was just mistaken, but his statement was factually incorrect. Graham was apparently referring to the 2001 tax cuts. But as the Sunlight Foundation has documented, Bush’s 2003 tax cuts were passed through reconciliation on a hyperpartisan 50-50 vote. Whether he was being disingenuous or not, those were harsh words, and they are not encouraging for those of us who have worried all along about the Senator’s ability to negotiate in good-faith. Graham’s most disturbing comments about reconciliation came on Sunday on ABC’s This Week:

If they do this, it’s going to poison the well for anything else they would like to achieve this year or thereafter.

He continued:

“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.”

Jeromy Symons gets this exactly right:

“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.”

Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.) remains confident in Sen. Graham’s interest in proceeding, citing earlier statements the republican senator has made. But Sen. Graham says a lot of things.

Ezra calls it an empty threat, quipping that “if Graham doesn’t think the well is already poisoned, then I dare him to take a sip from it.” But it isn’t clear to me that Sen. Graham is above using this as an excuse to back out of climate negotiations. While talking a relatively good talk most of the time, he’s been working behind the scenes to weaken the legislation as much as possible. And by the looks of things he’s had significant success on that front.

I can’t help but note that Sen. Graham initially became interested in climate legislation because of his mentor John McCain. McCain, of course, has long since bailed on climate discussions for plainly political reasons.

Bailing now offers Sen. Graham an easy opportunity to accommodate his increasingly anti-science base by pulling the football on the gullible democrats once again.

On Monday Graham warned reporters that the draft legislation he is developing with Sens. Kerry and Lieberman may not be public until mid-April. If all goes according to plan, health care reform will be the law of the land by then.

When democrats pass health care legislation in the next few days, Senator Graham will have a potentially career-defining decision to make. He can take the easy route, the predictable path, by joining republicans in an orchestrated tantrum and an attempt to completely shut down the government. Or he can do what he knows is right and continue working for clean energy legislation that will create jobs, reduce pollution and improve our national security. We’re going to find out what Sen. Graham is made of very soon.

Originally published at EnviroKnow.