By Andy Owens
Published Sept. 5, 2013
Moments before he was to speak to the Summerville Rotary Club on Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham stepped out to receive his fourth phone call from Washington since he had arrived.
When he stepped up to offer the typical joking jabs at Capitol Hill, he gave a glimpse into the urgency of the moment as Congress was being asked by the White House to approve military action in Syria.
“It is falling apart in Washington. I don’t know if we’re going to pass the resolution,” Graham said to at least one cheer in the audience.
The U.S. Senate Republican from South Carolina updated business and community leaders in Summerville on Syria and health care reform during a swing through the Lowcountry this week.
Graham’s talk Wednesday was mostly light on campaigning, but he did indirectly address some of his detractors who have been pushing him to defund health care reform and have been critical of his willingness to consult with President Barack Obama on partisan issues.
Graham said there are certain things about the Affordable Care Act that make sense, such as covering pre-existing conditions, allowing college students to remain on the health plans of their parents and making smokers pay more for health insurance; but he said the employer and employee mandate is already having negative effects.
“This whole concept’s ill-conceived. People are going to part-time employment because they can’t afford the mandate,” he said. “And the people you want to help the most are the ones you’re hurting.”
Graham said that he supports a system based in the private sector that has bipartisan support but that Republicans haven’t offered enough of an alternative plan to compete with the Affordable Care Act.
“Republicans have to do more than just say ‘I hate Obamacare.’ Come up with an idea,” Graham said. “Here’s an offer to any Democrat: If you’ll sit down with me, I’ll start over and work with you.”
Graham said he supports defunding health care reform on its own and has voted for it twice.
“I’ve voted against it 12 times. I’ve voted to defund it twice,” he said. “I would set myself on fire if I thought it would help. I’ll vote to defund it every day for the rest of my political career, but I want a strategy I think will work.”
Graham said a plan to defund health care reform has to be sufficiently strong to get enough Democrats behind it to withstand a presidential veto — but he said he would not support a full-government shutdown, as some have proposed.
“That to me is a strategy that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. It’s a tactical decision,” he said. “If we can’t defund Obamacare, why would I stop paying the military? Anybody got a Social Security check? Are you willing to give your check up to defund Obamacare? Nor would I.”
The senator said if funding for the Affordable Care Act remains in place, the fallout over the next few years will be politically difficult for Democrats who aren’t willing to change the law.
“This is an albatross around the Democratic nominees’ neck in 2016,” he said. “But health care is a real problem for America.”
The case for Syrian intervention
Graham said he gets political backlash every time he even talks to the president, which he recently did regarding Syria. He said Syria represents an opportunity for leadership because so few understand why America is considering stepping into another Mideast conflict.
“President Obama, I really believe, thought Bush was the problem. That he would go to the Mideast, he’d make nice and give good speeches and everything would fall in place,” Graham said. “He misunderstands the enemy we face.”
Graham said he’s pushing for a strategy that begins with limited military action to degrade Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, that would train and vet Syrian fighters and that would push Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Jordan to help foot the bill.
“I don’t know if it will work. I know it’s about as popular as a toothache,” Graham said. “I know that for me to go meet with Obama about anything is not good politics for me. ... The problem is the world needs some leadership, and we need to have a plan to stop radical Islam before it’s too late.”
Graham said many U.S. allies, including Israel and Jordan, would be in trouble if Syria melted down; but he also has a different reason for supporting American involvement, one he formed during tours overseas as a senator and as a reservist.
“I learned that it takes an incredible person to go four and five times to Iraq and Afghanistan and leave their family and miss birthdays and miss holidays and miss babies being born,” he said. “But you have to ask yourself: ‘Why do they do this?’ It’s not just the money.
“They have seen the face of the enemy, and they have chosen to keep the fight over there. I’ve got a simple philosophy. Keep it over there. Form partnerships that will keep it over there and, over time, we will win this thing.”
To be successful with a strategy that would entangle America, Graham said the president needs to clearly articulate America’s goals, and he doesn’t think Obama has done enough.
“I’m trying to help the president where I can, rally my colleagues, but when the president of the United States doesn’t make the case, it’s pretty hard for Lindsey Graham to make the case,” Graham said. “So he needs to get involved, or we’re just going to collapse here.”
Reach Andy Owens at 843-849-3142.