WASHINGTON — When it comes to combating global warming, Sen. Lindsey Graham is right where he loves to be — ahead of the curve, in the mix on a major issue, at the table for high-level, bipartisan talks behind closed doors.
Graham, a South Carolina Republican, is working with Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts and independent Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut to craft a climate change bill.
They face the dual challenge of overcoming widespread GOP opposition and withstanding relentless attacks by Big Oil and allied energy interests.
"Our goal is to create a vision that not only will help this planet — which I think is in peril — but will create millions of new jobs for Americans who need them, and help us become energy independent to make us safer," Graham told a crowded Capitol Hill news conference Wednesday.
Kerry, Lieberman and Graham held private meetings with Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and former EPA chief Carol Browner, now President Barack Obama's top adviser on climate change.
"We will be working closely with the White House over the course of the next weeks, with a view of trying to pull together ... a piece of legislation that we hope could get the 60 (Senate) votes necessary to pass" and avoid a filibuster, Kerry said.
Graham has tried to woo other Republicans with warnings that the Environmental Protection Agency will impose draconian regulations if Congress fails to act.
And he's stressed the national security threat of continuing to import oil from hostile Middle East countries.
"I think most Americans — Republicans, independents or Democrats — really feel uncomfortable with the fact that our nation sends a billion dollars a day overseas to buy foreign oil from some countries who don't like us very much," Graham said.
"Part of this initiative is to create a vision for energy independence and marry it up with responsible climate control," he said.
Graham had GOP partners in his previous bipartisan initiatives on immigration, judges and other issues.
Now, in accepting cap-and-trade limits on carbon emissions, Graham stands alone — though he says "a handful" of Republican senators back him but aren't ready to make public commitments.
In a move that stunned some of his GOP Senate colleagues — and angered many of his constituents back home — Graham joined Kerry last month in publishing a New York Times op-ed column on global warming.
The two senators sketched out a rough deal: Republicans would accept a cap-and-trade system of lowering carbon emissions in exchange for Democrats signing off on more nuclear power and expanded offshore drilling for oil and natural gas.
"We speak with one voice in saying that the best way to make America stronger is to work together to address an urgent crisis facing the world," they wrote.
For partnering with Kerry, a liberal who ran against President George W. Bush in 2004, Graham endured shouts of "Traitor!" and other verbal abuse at a recent town hall meeting in Greenville.
A Washington group with oil industry ties ran TV and radio ads against Graham in South Carolina, compelling the senator to marshal a show of support from business, military and business leaders in the state.
"Lindsey has been visionary and courageous," Kerry told McClatchy. "He's playing a very important role and showing real leadership."
In a broader divide among Republicans over the party's direction, Graham urges "center-right" compromise and pragmatic solutions to the country's pressing problems over conservative ideological purity.
When one activist tried to shout him down in May at the South Carolina Republican Convention, Graham retorted: "I'm a winner, pal. Winning matters to me. If it doesn't matter to you, there's the exit sign."
The cap-and-trade law sought by Kerry and Graham would be similar to a landmark 1990 measure — supported and signed by Republican President George H.W. Bush — that reduced acid rain by cutting emissions of sulfur and nitrogen dioxides.
Now, firms would choose between installing anti-pollution equipment on factories and power plants vs. buying emissions credits from companies that cut carbon output.
Kerry bridles at GOP claims that such a carbon-control system would produce a hidden tax increase, with utilities, energy companies and other manufacturers passing on their increased costs to customers.
"There is no tax," Kerry said. "It is a private investment incentive where a company is given the right to buy from a company that's reduced its pollution — to buy the right to pollute for a period of time. That's a private exchange. That's called capitalism. That's the private marketplace working at its best."
For his part, Graham believes that Republicans must stop denying that global warming is a dire problem — and stop blocking the growth of alternative forms of energy that he says could become a powerful economic engine.
"We need to lead the world rather than follow the world on carbon pollution," he said. "Our country doesn't have the infrastructure in place to build a green economy, and never will until we price carbon. And our country doesn't have a vision for energy independence. We need one."
Comfortably elected a year ago to his second term, Graham has turned working with Democrats on high-profile causes into a cottage industry.
Graham's controversial stances on issues ranging from immigration and judicial nominations to terror trials and health care land him regular spots on national TV, but they also enrage conservative activists in his state and beyond.
He was part of the Gang of 14 — seven Republican senators and seven Democratic senators — that in 2005 brokered a compromise over President George W. Bush's picks for federal judgeships.
More recently, he was part of the Gang of 10 that unsuccessfully pushed a comprehensive energy plan last year.
Graham also belongs to the bipartisan Gang of 12 senators who've sponsored compromise health care legislation that has gained little traction.
"I've been in so many gangs, they're going to put out an arrest warrant for me," Graham quipped last week as he rushed, surrounded by reporters, through a narrow corridor in the U.S. Capitol.
But so far on climate change, there's no gang of Republican senators joining Democrats in common cause.
Republican members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee boycotted the panel's vote Thursday passing a climate change bill crafted by Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer of California.
Graham backed the boycott, saying the Boxer legislation would impose draconian penalties on manufacturers while offering no concessions on offshore drilling or nuclear power.
Graham's initiative with Kerry is aimed at producing a more moderate measure with new allowances for drilling and nuclear energy.
"If I can create legislation that would allow this country to stop buying so much foreign oil and make us safer — plus find a solution to the carbon pollution hurting our planet — that would be a good use of my time, " Graham told McClatchy. "If that costs me my job, it would be well worth it."
Graham added: "But I don't think it will cost me my job."
While six Senate committees develop various climate-change bills, Democratic Sen. John Kerry and Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham have outlined a plan to bridge differences among the panels and between their parties.
The Kerry-Graham package would set up a cap-and-trade system allowing polluters to buy carbon-emission credits from firms that cut their output.
The senators' plan, described in a newspaper column, has several key features:
_ It sets maximum and minimum prices for the carbon credits.
_ It streamlines the permit process for new nuclear power reactors.
_ It authorizes expanded offshore oil and natural gas drilling.
_ It considers a "border tax" on imports from countries with weak environmental standards.
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