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Sanders, Graham square off on climate, gas prices in debate 

Budget Committee leaders met in debate at Kennedy Institute’s full-size Senate chamber replica

Sen. Bernie Sanders isn't ready to proclaim that the debate series will foster bipartisanship.
Sen. Bernie Sanders isn't ready to proclaim that the debate series will foster bipartisanship. (CQ Roll Call)

Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., sparred over rising gas prices during a Monday debate, with Sanders blaming corporate greed and Graham blaming President Joe Biden’s energy policies for the skyrocketing prices.

Sanders, the chairman of the Budget Committee, and Graham, the committee’s ranking member, met Monday for an hourlong debate in Boston moderated by Fox News host Bret Baier that was streamed on Fox Nation.

Both Sanders and Graham bemoaned the effect of high gas prices — the national average is at just over $5 a gallon, according to AAA — on the American consumer. But the two senators have very different views on the cause and solutions to the crisis.

Sanders called the price of gas “outrageously high” and said oil companies are taking advantage of the war in Ukraine to pad their profits. He said that the last time oil prices were at $118 a barrel, the price of gasoline at the pump was $3.83, compared with more than $5 today.

“I do think we have to do something about the outrageously high price of gas,” Sanders said. “I think the president should bring the major oil companies in and tell them we’re going to have a windfall profit tax on what they’re doing in order to stop them from ripping off the American people.”

Graham said the increased price of gas is due to Biden’s efforts to limit fossil fuels.

“The policies you pursued in terms of energy production has decreased production in the United States in a very dramatic way,” he said. “You declared war on fossil fuels in the United States, and when you go to the pump, you’re a victim of that war.”

Graham acknowledged the reality of climate change and said the country would move to electric cars in the mid-2030s. But he said that “is no reason to destroy the fossil fuel industry in this country.”

Sanders countered by stating climate change is an existential challenge that needs to be addressed immediately.

Sanders praised Biden’s signature piece of legislation thus far, the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package enacted last year. He said Biden deserves credit for the legislation, which aided people who became unemployed because of the pandemic.

“We passed legislation which said, you’re a working family, you’re hurting, we’re gonna get a check to you,” he said. “You’re unemployed, we’re going to extend unemployment benefits. You’re a hospital that’s going broke, we’re going to get money to you. You need a vaccine but you can’t get it, we’re going to make it possible for you to get it.”

Graham blasted the 2021 rescue package, arguing that former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers’ statements that the legislation would spark inflation have been proven right.

Graham said only a small portion of the money went to vaccines and testing, and he pointed out that money went to pickleball courts and $5 million went to the event’s host: the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate.

“Everything Larry Summers said about the American Rescue Plan increasing inflation happened,” Graham said, using the nickname for the law that Democrats gave it.

Gun safety compromise

Graham pointed to the bipartisan gun control framework announced Sunday by Sens. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., John Cornyn, R-Texas, and multiple other senators on both sides of the aisle as an example of the possibility of bipartisanship in the Senate.

[Bipartisan Senate group strikes gun deal focused on school safety, mental health]

Sanders said he is “quite sure” he would vote for the agreement if it went to a vote, although he said it did not go nearly far enough. Graham said the package will get 70 votes if it is “written the right way” and said he is encouraged that Sanders would vote for it.

“If you do, I think it will give cover on the left for people who are upset it is not enough,” Graham said. “John Cornyn, [Senate Minority Leader] Mitch McConnell, maybe myself will give some cover to people on the right when people say it is too much. So it would be a great thing if the Senate could come together and do this pretty soon.”

Sanders said he is all for bipartisanship but said Congress needs to represent the needs of the American people instead of powerful special interests.

The debate is the first of three featuring senators this year, hosted by the Bipartisan Policy Center in collaboration with the Orrin G. Hatch Foundation and the Kennedy Institute. Monday’s event was held at the Kennedy Institute’s full-size replica of the Senate chamber.

One goal of the debate series is to find common ground across the political divide, which Baier said he tried to do Monday.

“I’m not sure we really got there, but there’s promise — right, senator?” Baier asked Sanders.

“No comment,” Sanders replied.