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Immigration Vs. Climate Bill: Democrats Choose Politics Over Policy

AP News Analysis

This was supposed to be the day that three senators - Republican Lindsey Graham, Democrat John Kerry, and Independent Joe Lieberman - unveiled their bipartisan climate and energy legislation plan.

But over the weekend Graham put the brakes on the bill. The reason was not that he no longer liked the legislation. Rather, it was that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (pictured) had decided to prioritize immigration reform instead.

"Moving forward on immigration -- in this hurried, panicked manner -- is nothing more than a cynical political ploy," Graham wrote in a letter to his two co-sponsors.

He has a point.

The climate bill, after all, had a legitimate chance to pass this year. In a difficult but successful vote for many members, the House passed a climate bill last June; with Graham on board and Democrats holding 59 votes in the Senate, a bill had a clear chance to pass through that chamber as well.

There are, of course, major differences between the bills in the two chambers, chief among them on the issue of cap-and-trade (the House bill includes it, and the Senate proposal does not.) Neither a Senate vote to pass the bill nor a subsequent process to reconcile the two bills would be easy. But there was a reasonable chance that the Senate could pass its version and a compromise could be hammered out, getting the legislation to the president's desk this year.

Immigration is a different story: Nobody really expects a comprehensive bill to pass in 2010. For one, the energized Republican base is worked up enough about the prospect of "amnesty" for illegal immigrants that supporting the bill would be toxic for most GOP politicians; immigration reform is the sort of issue that could well result in an explosion of anger that makes the health care debate pale by comparison.

For evidence of the dynamic for the GOP, consider Arizona Sen. John McCain, a onetime proponent of comprehensive immigration reform who is now facing a primary challenge from J.D. Hayworth. Hayworth, a former lawmaker and conservative talk show host, has long hammered McCain for his relative moderation on immigration and other issues. Now McCain is backing the controversial Arizona legislation signed into law Friday that gives state police broad powers to act question and detain suspected illegal immigrations.

Supporting the bill would also be an extremely tough sell for many vulnerable House Democrats, who will not want to cast an unpopular vote in favor of "amnesty" in the run-up to the midterm elections. But the politics make more sense: Those vulnerable Democrats get an opportunity to take a strong position against a reform bill, which could help them hold on to their seats.

Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Reid, who is facing a tough reelection battle, gets a chance to stand with his state's sizable Latino population, which he hopes will help him squeak through to another term. To top it off, Republicans in general end up looking bad in the eyes of Latinos, a crucial voting bloc that only gets more important with each passing year.

The calculation facing Reid was this: He could force his fellow senators to make a difficult vote on a climate bill and then deal with a tough fight to get a compromise bill to the president, a battle that would not be unlike the painful process to get a health care bill passed. Or he could push an immigration proposal that will likely not pass but which will help his party politically and may keep him from losing his seat.

The fact that Reid chose the latter is what has Graham arguing convincingly that the majority leader put politics first. Indeed, Reid's decision may have effectively killed the push to pass a climate bill in 2010, widely seen as the best opportunity to pass legislation in light of expected Republican gains in the midterm elections. The decision "has destroyed my confidence that there will be a serious commitment and focus to move energy legislation this year," Graham wrote.

After Graham's letter was released, Kerry said in a statement that "this year is our best and perhaps last chance for Congress to pass a comprehensive approach." He said that "external issues" had derailed the agreement but suggested it would be "postpone[d] only temporarily."

That seems optimistic: With the regulatory reform bill still being hashed out, a Supreme Court nominating fight looming, the midterms approaching, and immigration reform seemingly soon taking center stage, there seems to be little room for a serious climate charge debate.

Reid disputes that, suggesting that both climate and immigration legislation could pass this year. But that claim is being treated skeptically in Washington -- to put it mildly. Speaking on immigration, Graham said in his letter that "I know from my own personal experience the tremendous amounts of time, energy and effort that must be devoted to this issue to make even limited progress."

The White House, for its part, wants a climate bill. But it is not going to stand in the way of Reid, who risked his political life by taking on the health care fight. President Obama has already signaledthat he is willing to get involved in the immigration fight, and he may take action soon to discourage other states from following Arizona's lead to pass their own tough immigration laws.

The upshot? Lawmakers appear to be embarking on a push for an immigration bill no one expects to pass while leaving a carefully-crafted climate bill out in the cold.

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