The Senate climate bill sits on the brink of collapse today after the lead Republican ally threatened to abandon negotiations because of a White House push to simultaneously overhaul the nation's immigration policies.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has been under fire from conservatives for months for helping to shepherd a Democrat-led bid to tackle global warming via a "grand compromise" on energy. But on Saturday afternoon, he signaled the partnership could soon be over.
Graham promised to leave President Obama and Senate Democrats standing at the altar after they started pushing last week for a comprehensive immigration reform bill that he called "nothing more than a cynical political ploy" headed into the 2010 midterm elections.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) tried to intervene Saturday during a phone call with Graham. But sources on and off Capitol Hill said their conversation grew heated, and the duo ended up issuing dueling statements suggesting they were still miles apart. Hours later, Graham's two partners on the climate effort, Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), hastily scrapped plans to release the bill today during a press conference with top business, religious and military officials.
With the rhetoric rising, senators and staff scrambled all through the weekend to save the climate measure. Environmentalists also raised their own voice challenging Reid and Obama to do a better job managing the agenda this year if their signature issue is to have any chance of notching the 60 votes necessary to make it to a conference with the House-passed global warming bill.
In an interview Sunday, Lieberman said he, Graham and Kerry plan to meet again today to map out strategy for their legislation, including outreach to the environmentalists and business officials who they have been in closed-door talks with over the last several months.
Graham technically remains at the bargaining table -- Lieberman said he had even suggested the trio send their bill now to U.S. EPA to begin the economic analysis --but it is still unclear if his concerns have been satisfied when it comes to where Democrats have placed the immigration overhaul on their agenda.
"Lindsey couldn't have been stronger this morning about his commitment to going forward on this bill," Lieberman said. "But he needs it to be separated from immigration reform because he thinks that's necessary if we're going to have a real chance to get it adopted."
Lieberman said Reid called him Sunday morning and "expressed his disappointment" that the climate legislation had hit a snag. "He felt badly about what's happened because he wants this bill to go forward," Lieberman said.
According to Lieberman, Reid said he assumed the Senate would first move onto the energy and climate bill because it was further along in the legislative process compared with immigration, which has not even emerged in draft form.
"We honestly believe this bill is going forward," a Kerry aide said yesterday. "The political landscape is still well-poised to get us the bipartisan support we need once the bill goes to the floor. The business and environment coalition is there and continuing to stand by us."
A Graham spokesman declined comment yesterday.
'Am I supposed to write every bill for the whole country?'
Graham has been the Obama administration's go-to Republican on Capitol Hill for everything from climate to immigration to closing the Guantanamo Bay prison. He regularly talks to White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel. And last summer, he was a leading GOP vote that helped Obama win Senate confirmation for his first Supreme Court nominee, Sonia Sotomayor.
Back in South Carolina, conservative activists have berated Graham, and at least two county GOP parties have adopted censure motions against him.
The two-term senator has also pushed back against the White House, warning earlier this year of partisan gridlock on the climate bill as Democrats advanced health care legislation via the fast-track budget reconciliation process. Ultimately, Graham did not abandon Kerry and Lieberman after Obama signed the health care law last month.
But it has been a different story over immigration, which bolted to the top of the Democrats' agenda last week as Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) prepared to sign a law requiring police to ask about immigration status of people they suspect are in the country illegally. Obama took the unusual step Friday of speaking out on a state law during a Rose Garden appearance, urging the need for a federal response. And House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) reportedly told Reid she would be OK if he first went to immigration, even if it meant pushing to the side the climate issue that she had made a signature part of her 2009 agenda.
Graham, who had been working on an immigration bill with Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), challenged Obama and Reid last week after the first news reports appeared that they were considering a push on the issue once they finished up a Wall Street regulatory reform package.
"Am I supposed to write every bill for the whole country?" Graham said Thursday.
By Saturday, Graham's frustration boiled over with a letter to the environmental, business and religious groups he had been working with on the climate issue to let them know he was planning to walk away from the negotiations by the end of the weekend absent a significant change of events.
In the letter, Graham highlighted his own experiences in 2007 struggling to craft an immigration bill with the George W. Bush administration -- an effort that involved heated debate over a temporary guest worker program and border detection technology.
"Expecting these major issues to be addressed in three weeks -- which appears to be their current plan based upon media reports -- is ridiculous," Graham wrote. "It also demonstrates the raw political calculations at work here. Let's be clear, a phony, political effort on immigration today accomplishes nothing but making it exponentially more difficult to address in a serious, comprehensive manner in the future."
Almost simultaneously, Reid -- facing a tough re-election fight in Nevada this fall -- released his own statement that declared both energy and immigration as priorities for the Democrats this year.
"Immigration and energy reform are equally vital to our economic and national security and have been ignored for far too long," Reid said. "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. 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 said he appreciated Graham for his work with the Democrats on "both of these issues and understand the tremendous pressure he is under from members of his own party not to work with us on either measure. But I will not allow him to play one issue off of another, and neither will the American people. They expect us to do both, and they will not accept the notion that trying to act on one is an excuse for not acting on the other."
A Senate Democratic leadership aide yesterday downplayed the timing dispute between energy and immigration even while allowing the majority leader would retain wiggle room on the floor schedule.
"Reid is prepared to move either to the floor as soon as they are ready, and of course climate change is much further along in the process," the aide said. "The chances that the two will be ready at exactly the same time are pretty slim, so he is unlikely to have to make some kind of choice between them."
The blame game
The potential demise of the Senate climate bill prompted angry rebukes from many of Obama's traditional supporters.
"If the White House loses Graham, that would certainly kill any chances of a climate bill this year," Joe Romm, a senior fellow at the left-leaning Center for American Progress, wrote on his blog "Climate Progress." "And yes, I'm now putting this on the White House."
New York Times columnist Tom Friedman had equally harsh words yesterday when he appeared on CBS's "Face the Nation." "This is a disaster," he said. "This is a travesty."
"It was all set up for Monday," Friedman added. "We had Lindsey Graham, Kerry, Lieberman. Industry was coming down. The administration, for its political reasons, decides it wants to elevate immigration. Lindsey Graham is completely isolated on the Republican side; I think he freaked out a little bit here in the end.
"The result is, right now ... in Beijing, they are high-fiving each other," Friedman added. "Oh yeah baby. This means the Americans are going to be paralyzed on green tech for another couple of years. China is already leading the world now in wind production, China is already leading the world in solar production. Where industry goes, where research goes."
Friedman blamed the White House for playing "raw politics" with the immigration issue as they look to help re-elect Democrats in the November midterm elections, including Reid and Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).
"Well, I think they're worried that Harry Reid is going to lose in Nevada, where you have a big Hispanic vote," Friedman said. "Hispanics are very concerned about an immigration bill that will bring legality to illegal immigrants here. Barbara Boxer is vulnerable in California. And so, yeah, the president has done and talked a lot on green energy, but I think there are a lot of people in the White House who prefer to talk about that. Keep us distracted. Shiny object over here, OK. But basically, they're interested in the raw politics of this."
Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, said she understood why Democrats were making an issue out of immigration, all the while keeping the torch lit on the energy bill. "From a political perspective, that's the best thing for them to say," Claussen said. "I don't mean to be so cynical, but isn't it? Getting out the base in November is very important for the Democrats."
But Reid spokesman Jim Manley dismissed a question about the politics of immigration and how a push for that issue could potentially capsize the climate bill.
"Absolutely ridiculous," Manley said. "At the beginning of this Congress, Senator Reid considered immigration reform among the Senate's top priorities, and it continues to be a high priority for him. Nothing has changed, except that maybe the situation in Arizona again highlights why we need to fix our broken immigration system."
Counting to 60 just got harder
Environmentalists celebrating last week's 40th anniversary of Earth Day said they were displeased with Obama and Reid for not doing enough right now to help notch 60 votes for the climate bill in the Senate. Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, cited Reid's statement Saturday where he said the onus was on the bill's authors to come up with the votes.
"What's particularly frustrating here, at a time when the environmental, business and veterans groups that support the climate bill are most engaged, at a time when there really are bipartisan possibilities for getting to 60, on the eve of the introduction of a bill, an array of interests on the podium with the authors, a very strong signal is sent that the leadership we need to be successful has been dropped," Krupp said. "When the leadership says, 'Go get 60 votes and then come back and see us,' that's basically a message to everyone involved that the leadership is backing off. That means you can't get 60 votes. It's a catch-22."
Even after Saturday's press release exchange, Krupp said yesterday he had reason to be optimistic after speaking by phone with both Graham and Kerry.
"There are signs they're coming back to the table and trying to find a path forward through the politics here," Krupp said. "Now it's really up to the president and majority leader to help get them there. ... In order for us not to reach this brink again, the president and the majority leader need to set the schedule, stay at the table and help get the authors to 60 votes, as they did with health care, as it always takes to get something big done in Washington."
In navigating toward 60, climate bill advocates have long taken into account the likelihood of losing about a half-dozen moderate Democrats who do not support sweeping environmental restrictions, especially in a tight economy. Claussen, a former top State Department official during the Clinton administration, said Graham's complaints over immigration suggest it will be even harder to sway enough Republicans to come on board.
"The real issue here is the politics," Claussen said. "The Republican politics and the Democratic politics, which I think will make it very hard to get the six to eight Republicans you need to get to 60. I never would ever say anything is impossible, but it's going to make it more difficult."
Claussen said she also doubts the Democrats have much wiggle room to keep Graham on board. And if he walks? "Then you're totally out of it."
Industry attorney Scott Segal said the climate bill authors were a long way from 60 votes, well before the chaos this weekend surrounding immigration.
"While it's tempting to view the immigration dust-up as an external force disrupting the climate discussion, all was not completely well even before the recent events," said Segal, who represents electric utilities and petroleum refiners for Bracewell & Giuliani. The Senate trio had been reporting progress late last week on language dealing with the transportation and power sectors, but Segal said "there were still plenty of open questions regarding both topics. Indeed, significant segments of both sectors did not appear anywhere near ready to endorse."
Sections on manufacturing, international competition and trade also remained incomplete, Segal added.
"So, if the immigration fight lit the match, there was already some smoldering in advance of the Monday event," Segal said. "Only careful consideration of the discussion draft, with much opportunity for debate, comment and legislative changes, would have created a successful outcome. As it stands now, we'll just have to see how the Senate schedule plays out."
Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), appearing yesterday on CNN's "State of the Union," said he doubted the Democrats would be able to get to either immigration or climate change given the work they face on fiscal 2011 appropriations bills and Obama's eventual nominee to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens. "We've got a lot of work on our plate between now and the summer," Chambliss said. "I'm not sure where you find the time to deal with these other major issues."
Obama, on a brief weekend holiday in North Carolina, did not wade in publicly on the Senate infighting that could doom his top legislative task on the environment. Instead, two other top White House officials spoke up without adding any fuel to the dispute with their leading GOP partner.
"There's no either-or between energy and immigration reform," Larry Summers, the president's top economic adviser, said on "Face the Nation." "Senator Reid, for whatever reasons he has, will in the Senate choose the legislative calendar."
Summers also hinted that Republican politics may be the problem in moving on either issue.
"Even though immigration and energy reform are both crucial issues for the business community, there's been an enormous back pressure against the kind of bipartisan cooperation that Senator Graham has engaged in," Summers said. "That perhaps has made this a more complex situation, more difficult for him than it would otherwise be. We're prepared to go ahead vigorously with any partner who wants to join us on both energy reform and immigration legislation because we think the gridlock needs to end."
Carol Browner, Obama's top energy and climate adviser, also issued a statement that sidestepped Graham's main concerns.
"We believe the only way to make progress on these priorities is to continue working as we have thus far in a bipartisan manner to build more support for both comprehensive energy independence and immigration reform legislation," Browner said. "We commend Senators Kerry, Graham and Lieberman for the tremendous work they have done to date to seize this moment and build a new coalition of business and environmental leaders and their efforts to craft a bill that will garner the votes to pass the Senate."