By Ben Geman and Michael O’Brien - 04/26/10 11:53 PM EDT
Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) insisted Monday that the Senate could still take up climate change legislation before immigration reform.
Lieberman’s comments came as a range of environmental and business groups that support the climate and energy measure ramped up political pressure to keep it alive this year.
Lieberman sought to quell the damage Monday. He said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told him Sunday that he would bring to the floor first whichever measure is ready first. Lieberman said the climate bill he has been working on is ready, while immigration is not.
But while Lieberman said that Reid was leaning toward moving the energy measure first, Graham told reporters Monday evening that this would not mollify him — he said that bringing up immigration at all was unacceptable.
Asked about Reid’s reported indication to Lieberman that energy would move first, Graham replied: “I think I have made it pretty clear that if you bring up immigration you are breaking faith with me.”
Asked if this was the case even if it came to the floor after climate and energy legislation, he replied, “Absolutely.”
In a 15-minute exchange with reporters in the Capitol, Graham said immigration has no chance of passing, but that bringing it up this year would badly hamper lawmakers’ and the country’s ability to deal with the issue – a signature priority for Graham – in the future.
“Do you think that I would sit on the sidelines and see immigration brought up like this and not object?” he said. “I am not going to be a party to bringing up immigration...this year in a way that will destroy that issue.”
“I am not going to have my fingerprints on a political maneuver that could wind up breaking this country apart,” Graham added. “Immigration brought up this year is nothing but a political stunt. It will divide the country.”
With Democrats facing losses in the midterm elections, climate change advocates see 2010 as their best chance to win long-sought caps on greenhouse gases, and Kerry said as much last week.
Over the weekend and on Monday, several groups urged Senate leaders to press ahead with the climate bill. The U.S. Climate Action Partnership said the Senate should make it a “top priority” this year. The group comprises several large environmental groups and major corporations, including General Electric, Shell Oil and the Big Three Detroit automakers.
“The U.S. faces a critical moment that will determine whether we will be able to unleash billions in energy investments or remain mired in the economic status quo,” the group said.
Separately, some of the country’s largest environmental groups issued a joint statement over the weekend after Graham’s decision to at least temporarily withhold support for the climate bill left its fate unclear.
“The tireless work of Sens. Kerry, Graham and Lieberman is proof positive that bipartisan success is well within reach. The House has passed historic legislation; now it is time for the Senate and the White House to stay focused and finish the job,” says the message from the Sierra Club, the National Wildlife Federation and seven other groups.
But their chances for progress hinge largely on how Graham and Reid proceed in the coming days and weeks.
Activists acknowledge that if Graham walks away — for good — the climate and energy measure is dead for the year. Graham is pivotal to shaping a bipartisan measure, and he’s seen as a bridge to other GOP votes needed to offset the likely opposition of some centrist Democrats to mandatory emissions curbs.
“One hundred percent of our focus right now is on getting the bipartisan energy reform effort back on track,” said Jeremy Symons, a lobbyist with the National Wildlife Federation.
Kerry and Lieberman, for their part, are trying to bring Graham back to the talks. As of press time they were scheduled to meet Monday evening.
Lieberman described the purpose of the meeting as “group therapy.” But he said “the key conversations may have to be between Senator Reid and Senator Graham.” Lieberman said Graham has told him that he wants to support the bill. “But he needs somebody other than us to do something.”
Procedural work on the climate and energy package is continuing even though the measure is in political limbo. According to Capitol Hill sources and news reports, the trio plans to receive the draft bill from legislative counsel Monday and to send it to the Environmental Protection Agency for modeling.
Sierra Club spokesman Josh Dorner said climate advocates have one important thing in their favor: Graham’s pique is not about the substance of the climate and energy measure.
“The good news is that there is not a substantive disagreement about the policy proposal at all. It is just the calendar issue,” he said.
Reid has not made a firm commitment about the sequencing of the measures, but hinted Saturday that a climate and energy package might be closer to the floor than an immigration bill.
“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. “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.”
Reid 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 — probably even if it is unsuccessful.
Bringing up an immigration bill before a climate measure could be damaging to the latter even if Graham doesn’t walk away, because election-year floor time is scarce and immigration is a highly contentious issue that could further divide Senate Republicans and Democrats.
But Lieberman said Monday that Graham’s position means immigration legislation is already dead for the year.
“In terms of practical politics, Lindsey is the only Republican so far to say he would be willing to work on both energy-climate and immigration reform. He has also now clearly said he can’t and will not do immigration reform this year,” Lieberman said.
“I think that means we are not going to get immigration reform done this year, but we can still do energy and climate, and frankly it is about the best thing we could do to create new jobs this year by this Congress,” he added.