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Lindsey Graham intends to "lean into" climate change during Biden era

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told "Axios on HBO" he intends to "lean into" climate change and that he has already discussed potential common ground with President Biden's special climate envoy John Kerry.

Behind the scenes: In a follow-up interview with Axios, Graham said Kerry called him in November, around the time Kerry's new position was announced, to see if there were openings to work together.

  • The State Department did not comment on the discussion Graham described.

The intrigue: Graham has a history on climate with Kerry — but not a successful one.

  • Over a decade ago, he negotiated for months on a sweeping climate bill with then-Democratic senators Kerry and Joe Lieberman.
  • Back then, the bipartisan senators were dubbed "The Three Amigos," after the Steve Martin comedy in which silent film actors from Los Angeles accidentally protect a Mexican village from a gang of bandits.
  • But Graham abruptly walked away from the two Democrats in April 2010, dealing a mortal blow to the legislation that collapsed entirely months later.

Why it matters: If the senior South Carolina Republican makes climate a priority and lobbies his GOP colleagues, it could help chip away at big barriers to bipartisan efforts.

  • "I'm trying to get the Republican Party to be thinking about a new economy," Graham told "Axios on HBO."

The big picture: Graham, who has endorsed putting a fee on carbon emissions, argues that shifts in the posture of powerful industries, including oil-and-gas companies and automakers, create new openings.

  • He repeatedly brought up General Motors' recent pledge to sell only electric cars and SUVs by 2035, and noted oil company moves to diversify into cleaner products.
  • His comments also come as the powerful American Petroleum Institute, in a shift, appears poised to endorse carbon pricing.
  • "There is a coalition to put together that didn't exist two years ago," Graham said.

What we're watching: One focus for Graham is that he wants to find ways to accelerate the deployment of electric vehicles while bolstering the Highway Trust Fund.

  • It's funded by gasoline taxes — which haven't changed in three decades — but faces revenue shortfalls as cars get more efficient and electric vehicle sales grow.

Reality check: Graham has signaled interest in climate several times in recent years, such as co-sponsoring a bill with two Democrats last year to help farmers take part in carbon credit markets.

  • But overall, he hasn't made it a big priority during his Senate tenure since abandoning the 2010 effort, and his new comments cover familiar terrain for the South Carolina Republican.
  • It didn't help Graham's cause that during the past four years, the most powerful Republican, former President Donald Trump, openly mocked the concept of combatting climate change.

Between the lines: More broadly, Republicans remain resistant to the kind of aggressive emissions-cutting policies that Democrats and environmentalists are seeking.

  • And carbon pricing is no longer a centerpiece of Democratic climate efforts. Lawmakers and Biden administration officials, seeking deep emissions cuts, are instead emphasizing large-scale investments and tough regulatory standards to cut emissions from power plants, cars and more.

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