'Chill out,' Graham tells critics

10/13/2009 12:00 AM

10/13/2009 12:09 AM

GREENVILLE - An often clamorous crowd blasted, grilled and occasionally cheered Republican U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., in a town hall meeting Monday that centered on health care reform but returned repeatedly to his positions on climate change, judicial appointees and immigration.

Graham returned the fire with a grin, at times shouting over his most boisterous critics and telling some who questioned his Christianity and party loyalty that their minority conservative views wouldn't succeed without the political coalitions he said are necessary to serve the majority of Americans and attract enough votes in Congress.

"If you don't like it, you can leave," he said.

Some did.

The 75-minute forum filled several sections of Furman University's Timmons Arena and attracted demonstrators, critics with handheld cameras, shouts of "traitor" and "Sotomayor" - and a smattering of supporters.

Graham repeatedly told those who shouted to "chill out," and addressed most of the hot-button issues that have rankled some in the state's conservative epicenter, including an op-ed column he co-authored this week with Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, which called for climate change legislation.

One man told Graham he had "betrayed" conservatism and made a "pact with the devil" by working with Democrats, and asked when Graham would switch parties.

Graham said he's not going anywhere and instead would grow the party, defending his conservative credentials on such issues as abortion and guns, and calling the view of Libertarians who believe President Bush was a war criminal "nuts."

"We're not going to be the party of angry white guys," Graham said to more shouts.

A woman who had been carrying a sign that condemned "unconstitutional, anti-Christ, socialist, federal, deficit-spending programs" told Graham "God does not compromise" and that he had violated his oath of office by supporting federal ideas, including health care reform that overstep states' rights.

Graham rejected the idea that the federal government should stay out of health care, saying few people want to get rid of Social Security and Medicare, and he defended his Christianity.

He drew some applause by saying he opposes Obama's government option for health care because he said it would drive private enterprise out of business and add hundreds of billions of dollars in debt. He said he's not afraid to ask people who can afford care, like himself, to pay more, and that more competition, deregulation and tort reform are all ways to lower costs.

"If we do nothing, we all lose," he said.

He handled other questions:

On climate change, Graham said he is working with Kerry because he wants to expand off-shore drilling and increase nuclear power to reduce the country's dependence on foreign oil. He said some caps on greenhouse gases are a reasonable trade-off to get a bill through Congress.

On Afghanistan, he said it's crucial to increase American forces to allow the safe training of future Afghan police and soldiers. To make progress through congressional action, he said, it will take working with Democrats to form Afghanistan benchmarks.

On his vote for Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Graham said he's trying to return to confirming judges based on their legal qualifications to avoid the "never-ending assault" faced by nominees. He said President Obama's Supreme Court pick is no worse than Justice David Souter, whom she replaces.

On hate-crimes legislation, Graham said he is "dead-set" against legislation he said would elevate crimes based on sexual orientation to special federal prosecution, which he said is a precursor to recognizing same-sex marriage. But without a coalition, the measure will pass because there aren't enough Republicans to stop it, he said.

On illegal immigration, Graham said he's all for a border wall, as well as tamper-proof Social Security cards to help crack down on employers who hire the immigrants.

He said he also wants to identify the 12 million illegal immigrants here now, make them pay taxes, learn English and hold a job, then send them home to the immigration line if they want to become citizens.

In the end, Graham told a decidedly right-leaning crowd he wants to build coalitions that will keep the country's politics "center-right."

"America is not only worth fighting for, it's worth getting criticized for," he said.

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