Sen. Lindsey Graham: 'I care equally about immigration and climate change'
Sen. Lindsey Graham has been in the news this week for threatening to vote against the climate bill he's crafted if the Democrats move on immigration reform this year. Given that Graham is the only Republican on either bill, it's a very credible threat. We spoke about both issues, and how to move forward on them, this morning. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
EK: You told Talking Points Memo that you would filibuster your own climate change bill if immigration moves this year.
LG: Yeah, I was asked a question. They said, "You would vote against your own bill?" And I said yes. I care equally about immigration and climate change. But if you stack them together this year you'll compromise climate and energy. You'll compromise my ability to get votes on climate change. When I told everyone I would do climate, in fact, I was assured we also wouldn't be doing immigration.
And on immigration, Arizona has made comprehensive reform very difficult this year. And the manner in which it's coming up, where Sen. Reid brings it up at a rally because he's down 15 points in Nevada, is bad for immigration reform. In this environment, what you'd have is bipartisan rejection of immigration. You'd get 75 or 80 votes for the McCain-Kyl [border security] amendment. Then, when you tried to put the pathway to citizenship on the table without a long process of planning and thinking and building support, you'd probably get 60 people voting against it. So you would have lost on immigration again.
EK: But doesn't Arizona add urgency to immigration reform? Isn't it clear we can't just wait for things to get worse, and doesn't that mean the Senate has to begin work on this priority?
LG: It shows two things. First, it shows the urgency of comprehensive reform, but it also shows that the country is moving away from comprehensive and towards border security. If you polled Americans and asked whether we should do comprehensive reform or focus on the border first, you'd probably get 75 percent for focus on the border. What's happened from 2007 to now has made comprehensive reform harder, not easier. In 2007, we had an illegal immigration problem. We didn't have a raging war in Mexico problem. You got the rancher killed, which put everyone on steroids. Then you got this law in Arizona, which is not the right answer but is understandable from people who feel like they're under siege.
So you start with where most of us are at. You say, let's do border security this year. The problem is the Hispanic community sees this as a slight. And I'm sympathetic to that thinking. Border security has been used in the past as an excuse for not doing comprehensive immigration reform. My advice is that securing the border now gives a guy like me who wants to get to comprehensive reform the credibility to get there. But if you bring up immigration in this climate, you'll divide the country further. You'll get a huge vote for border security and interior enforcement, but when it comes to pathway to citizenship, you'll break down big-time. That's where the politics get hard, when you realize we've got 12 million people who can't just be deported and we need to give them a reasonable way to stay here.
EK: But as you say, a lot of work needs to be done before a bill. Presumably there's some process you could support that may not mean a bill moves before the election, but sets the stage to handle the problem after the election.
LG: Me and Jeb Bush and people like that make a commitment to work on this issue [after our interview, Graham clarified that he would like to see, and serve on, a bipartisan commission that would report back with a comprehensive immigration reform proposal after the election]. I'll continue to work with Chuck Schumer. We put out an op-ed together on this. People say to me, “That's a contradiction.” No! I did it to show I haven't abandoned the issue. I'm playing pretty delicate politics here. I'm trying to let the business community and the Hispanic community know that I'm in. I ain't going away. But while we're trying to do this very hard thing that's energy and climate, I can't go down that road. I can't be pressured down that road. If you go, I can't go with you. Some supporters of immigration reform think I've abandoned them. But they're not listening. This is just too far for me and for the issue this year.
EK: But in a future year?
LG: Yes. That's why I wrote the op-ed. That's why I told Napolitano we could do it before 2012.
EK: So what allows climate to move forward now? What do you need to hear from Reid?
LG: Here's the problem with climate. Do you have any chance of bringing it up and getting 60 votes in this environment? There's a controversial provision in the transportation section. We have done as good a job as we can to get oil and gas companies to pay for their pollution. Some of that cost will be passed onto consumers. But it's not a gas tax. I need Harry Reid to say I agree with you. I support that. I won't introduce a bill and have the majority leader, who I have less than a strong bond with, say, "I can't support that gas tax." There was also a Fox News article where the White House said they couldn't support Graham's gas-tax gambit. I will not let this get blamed on me. It would be the worst thing in the world to take the one Republican working with you and make him own the one thing you don't like.
EK: So what you need isn't just an assurance on immigration. It's an assurance that if you're going to do the dangerous things on climate reform, you won't be hung out to dry on it.
LG: Right. Ask yourself: Why did they leak the story to Fox News? That told me they weren't committed to this issue. Why let a story start on a venue that would hurt your partner the most?
EK: Have you asked the White House?
LG: Yeah. They say, "Oh, we didn't do it." And it's true: Rahm and David didn't. But somebody involved in energy and climate there did. They've always worried about being in a bad spot on this. So someone pretty clever said, "Okay, we're going to get on the record against this."
EK: Do these assurances go in the other direction, though? You want to make sure the Democrats don't leave you hanging on this. But they're worried that this bill comes out, and you're with them, but 40 other Republicans are hammering them for supporting what they'll call a gas tax, cap-and-tax.
LG: This is exactly what they're going to say. I have never suggested they won't. And they'll say it about me, too. So we have to hold hands so I can make a credible argument, alongside business, saying it's not a gas tax. But you can't make this into my idea alone. It wasn't my idea.
EK: Do you think there's a chance for climate to move forward this year?
EK: And for more Republican support on it?
LG: Maybe if business gets involved. It's all about business. I can say I changed the face of the debate. This is no longer about economy-wide cap-and-trade. The business community is on-board with this proposal and they were against Waxman-Markey. I'll sit down with my colleagues: If you believe we need more domestic energy supply, we've got offshore drilling. We preempt the EPA from regulating carbon. That's a big get for business. About 80 percent or 90 percent of our caucus believes nuclear power is the way to go. We triple the current program of loan guarantees, do regulatory reform to make building plants easier. T. Boone Pickens's plan is in here.
And what do we give the other side? A cap on emissions from utilities. It takes four years to come into play so they have time. On the transportation side, we take them out of cap-and-trade but they pay a fee, it's their idea this fee, and the money helps you solve the overall problem. It goes into the transportation trust fund, or goes back to the consumer, or to business people, because that's where all the money goes. The money will be passed on just like the cost of cleaning up an oil slick is passed on. It could be up to 15 cents a gallon, but not for many years. I really believe in this product. I think it's a damn good solution.
Photo credit: By Harry Hamburg/Associated Press
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