With a Senate health care bill on track to be passed before Christmas without a single Republican vote, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham says his biggest concern about what he calls a "sleazy process" is the long-term damage it will do on Capitol Hill.
"You are legitimizing partisan outcomes rather than looking at the best interest of the nation and that is to hold hands and do big things together," Graham said in an interview Monday from Washington.
"It's the first time a major piece of legislation has passed along partisan lines," he said, "a departure from what has been a long-standing accepted principle up here that massive changes like Social Security and Medicare will require bipartisanship because that's good for the country."
Graham, a South Carolina Republican, also is concerned about the bill itself, which he said has been made to appear deficit neutral with phony bookkeeping requiring income and budget cuts that almost certainly won't happen.
And he has taken steps to make good on his vow to investigate the constitutionality of a deal in which the federal government pays the share of costs for Nebraska's new Medicaid enrollees in exchange for the vote of the Democratic senator from that state -- the vote that gave Democrats the 60 they needed to prevent a Republican filibuster of the bill.
Despite all of that, or perhaps because of it, Graham said a bill isn't as close to reaching President Barack Obama's desk as many believe, and certainly isn't, as Obama's chief political adviser David Axelrod has said, "on the one yard line."
"This is not over," Graham said. "We're not on the one yard line like Axelrod said. This is the fourth quarter. There's a whole quarter to be played."
Public opinion matters, Graham said, and Republicans are hoping Democrats will keep that in mind when the time comes to merge the Senate bill with the one the U.S. House of Representatives passed last month.
A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 37 percent of respondents said they expected the quality of the new health-care system to be better than the current one.
Conventional wisdom is that House Democrats will agree to a bill close to what the Senate has put together, a proposal that cleared one procedural hurdle Monday with 60 votes. The bill faces two more such votes, including one this morning, before a final vote that could come as late as 7 p.m. Thursday -- Christmas Eve -- requiring a simple majority.
Graham, however, said House Democrats will have to swallow hard to accept the Senate bill's language on abortion, which eliminates the House requirement for a separate insurance policy for abortions, and the Medicaid deal Sen. Ben Nelson got for Nebraska in exchange for that critical 60th vote.
The House bill also includes the government-run insurance option that liberals favor; the Senate bill doesn't.
The abortion differences are significant, Graham said, and some Democrats in the House have pledged not to support the weakened version in the Senate bill. And the deal that exempts Nebraska from paying a share of costs for expanded Medicaid provisions in the Senate bill is "crazy," he said, and perhaps unconstitutional.
So Democrats must agree on abortion, the public option and then, "Everybody on the Democratic side has to say it's OK to give Nebraska this sweetheart deal," Graham said. "If they're willing to do all of those things, the bill passes."
Graham said he wants South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster to examine the Nebraska deal and file a lawsuit if he believes it is unconstitutional.
Thomas P. Crocker, a constitutional law professor at the University of South Carolina, said Monday he isn't sure whether the deal violates the constitution.
"You can see where it certainly seems unfair to the other states, but there isn't a strict fairness requirement in the constitution," Crocker said. "So nothing leaps out."
Graham said he isn't sure, either, but if the deal is unconstitutional, he wants it nullified. He believes the reasoning is obvious.
"You bought the guy's vote illegally, OK? Secondly, if every state were given that same deal it would add hundreds of billions of dollars to the deficit."