WASHINGTON The Gulf of Mexico oil spill has seriously eroded chances for the Senate to pass a climate change bill this year, Senator Lindsey Graham said on Monday, as he also leveled new criticisms against the legislation he helped to write.
Graham, a Republican seen as the key to bringing along more Republican votes in the uphill fight to pass a bill in the Senate, spent about six months working with Democratic Senator John Kerry and independent Senator Joseph Lieberman on the nearly 1,000-page bill to battle global warming and increase domestic energy production.
Graham dropped out of the trio shortly before the controversial legislation was unveiled on May 12 -- first complaining that Democrats were pulling an election-year stunt by shifting to immigration reform instead of energy policy and then saying that the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster required a pause in the drive for a climate bill.
In a short interview with Reuters, Graham complained that provisions to expand offshore oil drilling were "greatly compromised" in the legislation Kerry and Lieberman presented, compared with the trio's original plan, and "I couldn't support them as is."
When the draft bill was unveiled, Kerry, a Democrat, predicted that he could win back the support of Graham.
The April 20 explosion of a deepwater oil rig off the coast of Louisiana and the spewing of crude oil that has gone unabated since then caused Kerry and Lieberman to add in more offshore oil drilling safeguards into their legislation, including protections for Florida.
In objecting to the new bill, Graham complained that it now restricts "eastern Gulf (oil) exploration in a way different than our original proposal."
Overall, the Kerry-Lieberman bill would require U.S. industries and utilities to cut their output of carbon dioxide pollution, which many scientists blame for global warming.
In a move to attract Republican votes in the deeply divided Senate, the two senators also included incentives for expanding nuclear generating capacity, oil and gas drilling and research on how to cut pollution at coal-burning utilities and factories.
Asked how long the Senate should suspend action on a climate bill, Graham said: "I think it gets longer simply because of the unknown nature of the oil spill."
He acknowledged the difficulties in winning support for more offshore oil drilling because of the massive oil spill, adding that "Democratic senators who would be opposed to expanding oil drilling have gotten firmer in their resistance and you've got to make those votes up."
But the South Carolina senator said "fossil fuels extraction" must be part of a climate bill and, "You'll never get my vote" with the current oil drilling language.
Daniel Weiss of the Center for American Progress, which supports climate change legislation, echoed Graham's assessment of the political problems the bill is up against. "The oil spill has frozen members. The last thing politicians like is uncertainty and this creates a great deal of uncertainty."
President Barack Obama has said the climate change/energy legislation is a high priority of his administration. But he has not yet put his full weight behind passing a bill, as he did with measures to reform U.S. healthcare and banking industries.
Obama is scheduled to meet with Senate Republicans at a closed-door lunch on Tuesday to discuss bipartisan cooperation on upcoming legislation.
One Senate Democratic aide said he thought immigration and energy measures would be discussed, but some Republican aides doubted there would be any breakthroughs at the meeting.
(Editing by Sandra Maler)