Battle over climate change, immigration may split Dems



Sen. Lindsey Graham’s (R-S.C.) threat to abandon climate change talks over a separate spat on immigration reform may force Democrats to choose one constituency over another.


Democratically aligned groups backing each bill are publicly saying that they support both measures.

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“The American public expects Congress to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time,” said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, which supports legislation creating a way for illegal immigrants to become citizens. 

“We don’t think it’s an either-or proposition,” said Frank Sharry, founder and CEO of America’s Voice, another immigration group that holds similar views. 

But Graham’s stance has also brought recrimination on all sides. 

Some lobbyists involved in climate talks have complained — not for attribution — that Reid unnecessarily antagonized Graham by suddenly pushing immigration reform. 

One lobbyist who is part of a group of business and environmental leaders who have backed the climate bill was fielding frustrated calls from executives who were “not very sympathetic” to the political challenges facing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

In a tough race, Graham and others have suggested Reid is using the immigration bill to rally support among his Hispanic constituents in Nevada. 

Backers of immigration reform, meanwhile, have blasted Graham, a longtime ally, for criticizing Democrats on immigration after complaining only weeks ago party leaders were not pushing hard enough for an immigration deal. 

Sharry made clear that he and other proponents of immigration reform want to see action this year, whatever the risk of alienating Graham, a key player on a number of policy fronts.

“We were pissed at [congressional Democrats]. And we’ve been pissed at the White House, too. If we have more sweet talk, we were going to get sick,” Sharry said.

On Monday night, Graham upped the ante on the cost of his rejoining the climate talks, insisting Democrats drop efforts to pass immigration reform altogether. 

He previously indicated that he was upset Reid appeared ready to move an immigration bill ahead of climate legislation, which Graham has spent months crafting with Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.).

 “I think I have made it pretty clear that if you bring up immigration, you are breaking faith with me,” Graham said. 

Kerry on Tuesday struck an optimistic tone, insisting climate legislation was not dead. But on K Street Graham’s support is considered crucial to the measure’s passage, because he is viewed as a bridge to other Republican votes.

One lobbyist for a renewable-energy company said climate legislation was a long shot before Graham pulled his support. The lobbyist suggested Democrats may seek a compromise by jettisoning a cap on carbon and concentrate instead on an “energy-only” bill that calls for more production and support for renewable energy and conservation programs.

That may attract support from labor groups that want Congress to pass clean-energy legislation to create new green jobs. 

Environmental groups and a few of their labor allies, however, again insisted Tuesday that greenhouse gas emissions reductions be part of the energy package.

“This must be the year that the United States passes comprehensive climate and energy legislation into law in order to create jobs, strengthen our national security and reduce carbon pollution,” 31 organizations wrote Tuesday. The Environmental Defense Fund, Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club and 28 other groups signed the letter.

Meanwhile, the Appollo Alliance, a group of investors, labor officials and environmental leaders, urged the Senate to “finish the job” on comprehensive energy and climate legislation.

“As the U.S. economy struggles to revive, we must seize this window of opportunity to stop the flow of quality jobs overseas and take control of America’s energy future,” said Alliance Chairman Phil Angelides, the president of Riverview Capital Investments. 

Angelides is also chairman of the Federal Crisis Inquiry Commission, a bipartisan panel appointed by Congress to investigate the causes of the financial and economic crisis.

Legislators have had their hands full this year: first with healthcare reform and now big financial and energy bills. 

Only recently has immigration reform been added to the list. Dormant for months, the issue has re-emerged for two reasons, observers said.

One is Reid’s own reelection and the prospects of other Western Democrats’.

“Democrats need a big Hispanic vote to survive in 2010,” said Darrell West, vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution.

Graham has called the immigration push a “political stunt.”

“Do you think that I would sit on the sidelines and see immigration brought up like this and not object?” he said Monday. 

“I am not going to be a party to bringing up immigration . . . this year in a way that will destroy that issue.”

The other driver is that an immigration law in Arizona is seen by critics as draconian and reaffirms the need for federal policy. 

The bill, signed into law by Gov. Jan Brewer last week, makes failure to carry immigration documents a crime and gives the police more power to detain people suspected of being in the country illegally.

On Wednesday, Hispanic congressional leaders are scheduled to hold a press conference to explain their concerns with the Arizona law, described by both sides as the toughest illegal immigration bill in the nation.

Sharry, of America’s Voice, said Graham was trying to protect his friend, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), from having to weigh in on an issue when he faces a tough primary challenge from the right in a race where immigration has come up.

“He was slow-walking the process, protecting his friend, and the perfect crime just got uncovered,” Sharry said.

Graham spokesman Kevin Bishop called the charge “nonsense.”