By Russell Berman and Ben Geman - 04/23/10 12:52 AM EDT
A trio of key senators on Thursday pressured Democratic leaders not to let immigration reform displace a global warming bill.
Moving the immigration bill first, as House and Senate leaders have discussed, threatens the rare chance of winning passage of climate change legislation, said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).
Graham and his partners in writing climate legislation, Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) met with Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on Thursday to discuss their bill and the Senate agenda.
Kerry and Lieberman separately told reporters that Reid was committed to bringing their legislation to the floor, but they did not appear to have received a firm commitment on timing.
Asked if he’s requested that Reid bring up a climate bill before immigration, Kerry said: “I asked the majority leader to do what he thinks is best, but he told us that he would [bring up climate change first].”
Pressed further, Kerry said Reid should be asked about the order of the agenda.
A spokesman for Reid had no comment on the timing, but said the senators had had a productive meeting.
A climate change bill had been seen as holding the pole position in the Senate until this week, when momentum appeared to swing to immigration reform.
With the Senate also having to take up the confirmation of a Supreme Court nominee, there’s little chance of covering all the issues before the August recess, when Congress will turn almost all of its attention to the midterm elections.
Graham is in the unique position of being the sole Senate GOP negotiator on both climate change and immigration legislation, but in dismissing the immigration-first proposal, he made his priority clear. The South Carolina Republican has been working with Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) on immigration.
Graham was responding to reports that Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told Reid in a meeting Tuesday that she would be “fine” if immigration reform jumped over climate and energy legislation in the Senate queue.
Climate legislation was approved by the House last summer in a major but costly victory for Pelosi, and legislation sponsored by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) cleared the Environment and Public Works panel last year on a party-line vote. Neither the House nor Senate has taken action on immigration reform in this Congress.
The immigration bill, Graham said, is far from ready. “What am I supposed to do, write an immigration bill between now and Monday with Chuck?” Graham said.
Kerry also pushed for the Senate to act on climate change this year. He said in a statement commemorating Earth Day that 2010 was the “last and best shot” to pass legislation in the Senate curbing greenhouse gas emissions. “We can’t afford to wait, and we’ll never have as clear a shot to reach this goal we first set out 20 years ago,” Kerry said.
Lieberman told The Hill on Thursday that he was not concerned about talk that immigration reform was moving ahead.
“He was still talking when we met about this work period, before Memorial Day,” he added, though he said he did not think it would come to the floor that fast.
"I came away very encouraged that this is a priority for the majority leader, so that we will get floor time for sure,” Lieberman said.The maneuvering on Thursday illustrated the tensions created by a fast-closing window for legislative action this year, in which Democratic leaders must choose between two prized but politically fraught pieces of the Obama agenda.
Pelosi on Thursday confirmed to reporters that the House would not object to the Senate passing an immigration overhaul first.
“If the Senate is ready with an immigration bill, we don’t want anybody holding it up for any reason,” Pelosi said at her weekly press conference. “Send it to us.”
While allowing for the possibility that immigration reform might move first, Pelosi emphasized that addressing energy security and climate change were “the flagship issues of her Speakership.”
Speaking to reporters, Reid gave little indication of which bill he intended to bring up first.
“We have to do something on energy. Energy is an important part of the legislation that we have to do and we’re going to do that this year,” he said.
“Immigration is something we really have to do, that’s something that is — the system is broken. I’m not going to be saying that one is more important than the other.”
Reid vowed at a campaign rally during the April recess to bring up immigration reform this year. The majority leader faces a difficult reelection race this fall, and given the number of Hispanic voters in his state, it is thought that a push for immigration reform might benefit him.
The focus on immigration reform comes as Hispanic leaders have increased pressure on the Obama administration and the Democratic Congress to make good on their pledge to pass a comprehensive bill. One such leader, Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), told The Hill that he might urge Latino voters to stay home in November if Democrats did not push the issue.
On Tuesday, President Barack Obama called five Republican senators from Air Force One to discuss immigration reform, telling Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) that the issue would be coming up in the next several weeks.
Gutierrez said Thursday that the possibility that immigration was moving up on the Senate agenda was welcome news. “I loved it,” Gutierrez said, adding that he was encouraged both by Pelosi’s position on the issue and by the fact that she acknowledged it publicly.
The comments by Pelosi seemed to confirm for Gutierrez what he described last week as a shift in her commitment to immigration reform.
He also noted that he just cut a check for $100,000 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, ponying up a large chunk of his dues after years of ignoring the party leadership’s calls for him to pay up. Gutierrez had said last week he planned to make a payment by May 1.
Alexander Bolton contributed reporting.