By Russell Berman and Alexander Bolton - 04/29/10 12:42 AM EDT
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) ended a week of indecision Wednesday about the Senate agenda by stating that climate change legislation will come to the floor before immigration reform.
“I am going to move forward on energy first,” Reid said at a press conference Wednesday.
The definitive statement by the Democratic leader is unlikely to quell the uproar caused by reports that immigration had leapfrogged climate change, however, especially after Reid failed to immediately shoot down suggestions that immigration was first in line.
The flirtation by the White House and Senate leader with immigration infuriated Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), the lead GOP supporter of both immigration reform and climate change legislation.
He has suspended his support for advancing the climate measure and on Tuesday predicted immigration reform would not move through this Congress.
Immigration advocates frustrated by a lack of progress on their core issue also are now fully engaged, and will be heavily disappointed if there is no action.
At a press conference outside the Capitol, leaders of the congressional Hispanic, Black, Asian and Progressive caucuses said the restrictive new immigration law in Arizona made comprehensive reform an urgent necessity.
“The time for action is now. We cannot wait any longer,” Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.) said.
The immigration advocates also turned on Graham, who had been the lone Republican senator in negotiations for an immigration overhaul.
Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) said Graham had “changed his mind and undermined the whole process.” He vowed not to allow the South Carolina Republican to unilaterally “veto a whole movement for justice and for fairness for immigrants in this country.”
The tone marked a shift for Gutierrez, who earlier this month said he echoed Graham’s criticism of the Obama administration’s approach to immigration reform.
While Reid’s move on immigration pushed Graham away from the issue, the new law in Arizona rallied advocates around the cause. The law signed last week makes it a state crime for immigrants to be in the country illegally and compels authorities to demand evidence of citizenship from individuals whom they suspect are not legal residents.
One after the other, the lawmakers outside the Capitol described the law in near-apocalyptic terms. They compared it to apartheid in South Africa and Jim Crow-era laws in the U.S.
“It panders to the worst elements of our national dialogue,” Velázquez said. Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.) said the law was “an embarrassment to the entire country.”
The lawmakers put the onus on the Senate, and Reid in particular. “The Senate has a responsibility to lead; the Democrats have a majority,” Gutierrez said. “It’s time for them to make their proposal clear.”
“I’d like to thank Arizona’s governor [Jan Brewer (R)] for rocketing this issue to the forefront,” Crowley said. “We’re pushing immigration reform to the top of the agenda.”
Rallies long scheduled for May 1 in cities around the country would now see tens of thousands more participants in the wake of the Arizona action, Gutierrez said.
The immigration advocates also got a boost from former President Bill Clinton, who said at a conference on the country’s soaring national debt that the U.S. needed more tax-paying immigrants to bolster the economy.
He also said Congress should take up immigration reform legislation to preserve the country’s advantage over trading partners. “Changes we have to make in Social Security will be slightly less draconian if you get people in the system,” Clinton said. “I don’t think there’s any alternative but for us to increase immigration.”
Walter Alarkon, Ben Geman and Jordan Fabian contributed to this article.