By Ben Geman - 04/24/10 11:18 PM EDT
President Barack Obama’s hopes for winning climate change legislation in this Congress appeared to be hanging by a thread on Saturday.
The key Republican senator negotiating on the bill, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), threatened to abandon his work out of fury that Democratic leaders may take up immigration legislation before a global warming bill.
The devastating blows came after Arizona’s governor signed tough new legislation allowing police in her state to stop and question people they reasonably suspect are illegal immigrants. The move has helped catapult immigration back to the top of the political debate, threatening work on climate change.
Many believe the Senate will only have the energy and time before this fall’s elections to tackle one of the issues, so the decision on which will be worked first is significant.
Without Graham’s support, it also would be difficult to do anything on sweeping energy and climate legislation, since the South Carolina Republican is seen as a bridge to other GOP votes.
Kerry used a statement Thursday commemorating Earth Day to underline the urgency: “We can’t afford to wait and we’ll never have as clear a shot to reach this goal we first set out twenty years ago,” he said.
On Saturday, he for a second time described 2010 as the “last and best shot” to win passage of climate change legislation.
Democrats will hold the White House for two more years, but they are expected to suffer significant losses in the House and Senate this fall, which could make it more difficult to move a climate change bill in the next Congress.
Even before the action in Arizona, immigration appeared to be nudging ahead of climate change as a priority for Democrats, who are looking for ways to stay on offense politically and motivate their base.
In an interview this week with The Hill, Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), a key voice on the issue in the House, threatened to urge Hispanic voters to stay home in November if Democrats did not make a serious effort on immigration.
Discouraged Hispanic voters would be a major problem for Democrats running for reelection in 2010, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who is behind in the polls and in recent weeks has pledged to move forward this year with immigration reform.
On Saturday, Reid said the public expects Congress to work on both climate change and immigration, but gave little signal over which could come first.
“Immigration and energy reform are equally vital to our economic and national security and have been ignored for far too long,” he said.
Reid did seem to give a small edge to climate change by stating that “significant committee work that has not yet begun” is necessary to move immigration reform. He did not give the same description of climate change legislation, which has already been approved by the House.
“As I have said, I am committed to trying to enact comprehensive clean energy legislation this session of Congress. Doing so will require strong bipartisan support and energy could be next if it's ready,” Reid said in a prepared statement. “I have also said we will try to pass comprehensive immigration reform. This too will require bipartisan support and significant committee work that has not yet begun.”
Graham, who has been working on a climate bill for months with Kerry and Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), told The Hill through a spokesman that Reid’s comments were not sufficient to allay his concerns about Democrats prioritizing immigration over the energy and climate change measure.
Graham’s threat Saturday caused immediate concerns among climate advocates pushing for legislation to reach the Senate floor this year.
Climate advocates have long assumed they will need at least a handful of GOP votes for controversial greenhouse gas caps to counter the potential opposition of moderate Democrats such as Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.).
“It would be certainly be disappointing if being able to move forward on comprehensive energy reform that would create jobs, make us more competitive in the global marketplace and increase our national security gets caught up in political wrangling,” said Tim Greeff, political director for the Clean Economy Network, an advocacy group of entrepreneurs, investors and others involved with low-carbon technologies.
While it remains unclear if Graham is done with the climate and energy effort for good, he said in a letter Saturday that Democratic plans to move on immigration legislation this year had “destroyed” his confidence that there would be a serious commitment to move energy legislation.
“I will not allow our hard work to be rolled out in a manner that has no chance of success,” he said.