MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
With a Senate health care bill poised for passage in the next few days, it appears that Democrats will succeed at moving forward a prized piece of legislation. Republicans remain united in their opposition to the measure and object to not only to the bill's substance, but to the manner in which Democrats got the 60 votes needed to pass the bill. Sleazy, is how GOP senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina described the process today. And Senator Graham joins us now from Capitol Hill to talk about health care and other matters. Welcome, Senator.
Senator LINDSEY GRAHAM (Republican, South Carolina): Glad to be with you. Happy holidays.
SIEGEL: I gather you've asked the South Carolina attorney general to look into a deal that secured the 60th vote from Democratic senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska in favor of ending debate on the health care bill. Isn't that just Senate wheeling and dealing, normal way things are done?
Sen. GRAHAM: Well, you know, it's okay 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 okay to go get your fair share. What I don't think is okay is for a senator to basically agree to a bill that increases taxes on 49 states and say I will vote for that bill if you will exempt my state. That's crossing the line.
SIEGEL: Every resident of Nebraska got an exemption from the Senate bill�
Sen. GRAHAM: Yeah. Basically the bill expands Medicaid eligibility to 133 percent above poverty. In my state of South Carolina, there would be about 500,000 new enrollees if this bill becomes law. It's a billion dollar increase in terms of the matching requirement for South Carolina. That billion dollars comes from the citizens of my state. And the problem I have is that it is a burden that we can't afford to bear. It's going to be passed on to every other state except Nebraska.
SIEGEL: But is asking the South Carolina attorney general to look into it, is that a very dramatic form of press release or do you really expect a criminal investigation?
Sen. GRAHAM: You know, I think it's a legitimate issue. And to exempt one state I think raises a constitutional issue. It certainly doesn't pass the smell test.
SIEGEL: I want to ask you about another bill. Health care has been marked by almost a perfect opposition of the two parties.
Sen. GRAHAM: Right.
SIEGEL: On the other hand you joined with Senator Lieberman, the independent, and Senator John Kerry, the Democrat, in drafting legislation on another very divisive issue: climate change. What is it about that issue that somehow has made it very different for you than health care reform?
Sen. GRAHAM: Well, you know, I come from a pretty red state: South Carolina. But I feel an obligation to address the hard issues the country faces. I, as you remember, worked with Senator Kennedy on the immigration bill. You know, I was in the Gang of 14 to break the filibuster to get judges confirmed without blowing up the Senate. You know, I've done some - I voted for Judge Sotomayor because I thought she was qualified. In health care, I feel terrible about the process. I feel like it's just been quite frankly a joke and they want 60 votes more than they want a quality bill. But when it comes to energy independence and climate change, it's an issue facing the world and our country. So, I'm willing to work with Democrats and Republicans to become energy independent, create green jobs and I'd also like to pursue cleaner air. So, that's why I'm working with Joe Lieberman and John Kerry to try to solve a hard problem.
SIEGEL: And I'm thinking about the pull of your party on this. I mean, Senator Inhofe�
Sen. GRAHAM: Yeah.
SIEGEL: � of Oklahoma, has called climate change the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people. He's got - went off to Copenhagen to try to argue against any kind of agreement. If he prevails, he is costing you more than Senator Nelson is costing you in South Carolina.
Sen. GRAHAM: Well, now, at the end of day, he has a legitimate right to disagree with me. And Senator Nelson can disagree with me on any policy. He just can't raise taxes from South Carolinians and exempt Nebraskans. It's okay to disagree. I believe the planet is warming up. But climate change is not a religion to me. I'm somewhere between Jim Inhofe and Al Gore. I think carbon pollution is something worthy of our time to address.
SIEGEL: Well, let's say that a cap-and-trade system that prices carbon�
Sen. GRAHAM: Right.
SIEGEL: �is almost within striking distance of a Senate majority. And there's just one senator whose state depends so heavily on dirty coal or whatever it might be that a bit of indulgence for that one senator can get you the 60 votes. Do you say�
Sen. GRAHAM: That would be great.
SIEGEL: Yeah, but Senator Inhofe is going to say, look, you just bought a vote to get your 60 votes.
Sen. GRAHAM: No, what I'm trying to do is not - you know, to make sure that clean coal technology is rewarded is a national security imperative.
SIEGEL: How many Republican senators see things your way right now on energy and cap-and-trade?
Sen. GRAHAM: I think on energy independence almost all of them.
SIEGEL: But on cap-and-trade?
Sen. GRAHAM: Yeah. That's the problem.
Sen. GRAHAM: I think I could get most of my - if I could increase the ability to build nuclear power plants in a robust way and had offshore oil and gas exploration and clean coal and, you know, making green jobs more accessible, I think I can get more than a handful of Republicans to entertain the idea of pricing carbon.
SIEGEL: But can you imagine a legislative outcome in which you are - to put it crudely - the Olympia Snowe�
(Soundbite of laughter)
SIEGEL: �of energy you cast one - the one Republican vote in the committee?
Sen. GRAHAM: Yeah, the reason that won't happen is because after this health care debate, there are not going to be anymore partisan deals because the price is too high. And I'm going to try�
SIEGEL: Do you think the lesson of the health care debate is that there will be more bipartisan legislation? Not that this�
Sen. GRAHAM: Or there will be no bill at all. Yeah, we're not going to do a bill with one or two Republicans and a bunch of Democrats.
SIEGEL: So, does this experience of health care actually raise the likelihood of passing a bipartisan bill?
Sen. GRAHAM: This is funny. It's a mixed bag. Feelings are pretty hard right now. But I think all boats rise when we do something together that makes sense to people and I think most Americans would like to be energy independent and most Americans would be happier with cleaner air.
SIEGEL: Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, thank you very much for talking with us.
Sen. GRAHAM: Thank you.
NORRIS: It's been 46 years since the Senate met in session on Christmas Eve, but that's the plan for a final vote on health care legislation. Today, one senator tried to keep things festive on the Senate floor.
Senator ROLAND BURRIS (Democrat, Illinois): It's the night before Christmas and all through the Senate the right held up our health care bill no matter what was in it.
NORRIS: That's Senator Roland Burris, the Democrat from Illinois. In his version of the night before Christmas the Democrats are victorious.
Sen. BURRIS: And a good bill was ready for President Obama. Ready to sign and end health care drama. The Democrats explained as they drove out of sight better coverage for all, even our friends on the right.
NORRIS: Senator Roland Burris with his effort today at a little holiday cheer on the floor of the Senate.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.