Posted by: Jeff | April 27, 2010

The Democrats’ Dueling Priorities

To be honest, once financial reform is in the bag, if the Democrats were to put immigration on the backburner and take up climate control legislation instead, I’d be fine with that. But at this point, I’m not sure what’s going to happen. Howard Fineman is saying immigration may very well not happen at all this session, but The Washington Post is reporting that it’s going ahead of the climate bill on the Senate’s agenda.

More interestingly, Lindsey Graham is rather pissed that immigration will be the Senate’s next issue. His reasons are pretty straightforward; for months Graham has been the lone Republican willing to work with Democrats on a climate change and energy reform bill, and he’s taken an extraordinary amount of flack from his party for it. Lieberman, Kerry and himself have been doing enormous amounts of political spadework to get a bill together that actually has a realistic chance of passing. There is, as far as anyone seems able to tell, no political upside for Graham in this. His interest in bipartisanship seems to genuinely stem from his belief in the importance of the issue.

And Graham is right. To parrot Ezra Klein, “There’s a point-of-no-return on climate change: If you don’t start getting carbon emissions down in the near future, it’ll be too late. Immigration, conversely, is bad, but it’s not getting dramatically worse or harder to fix with each passing month.” On top of that, the House has already passed climate legislation, which means that if the Senate can get it done before the midterms, the president might actually sign something before the year is out.

There is no comparable hope for immigration reform. The House has not passed a bill, and as Fineman notes it has refused to even touch the issue unless the Senate moves first. And even if the Senate can get something passed before the midterms, the chances that the House will get to it as well before the elections are effectively zilch.

So yes, the Democrats are full of hot air on immigration reform. But they have one very good reason to take it up before the midterms, even if they know nothing substantive will get done: The issue is political poison for the Republicans. It drives a wedge between their business wing and their populist base. On top of that, a public spat over the topic will bring out the Republicans’ most xenophobic elements, a spectacle that will probably send Latinos and swing voters alike running into the arms of the Democrats. And just in time for the midterms in November. On the Democrats part, it would be cynical hardball politics par excellence.

And normally, I’d be fine with that. But in this case, there are real costs. Most importantly, the Democrats would be sacrificing the opportunity to make a substantive difference on a time-sensitive problem. And secondly, while it’s not clear how much support Graham could have really given the climate bill (even his own vote would have ultimately been in question) shafting the one Republican who seems genuine in his willingness to cooperate on a particular issue doesn’t exactly send the best message.

The Democrats should tackle climate reform next.

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