By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 25, 2010; A03
The effort to enact comprehensive climate and energy legislation this year suffered a critical blow Saturday when Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), the key Republican proponent of the bill, withdrew his support because of what he said was a "cynical political" decision by Democrats to advance immigration legislation first.
The move forced the other two authors of the climate and energy bill, Sens. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), to cancel a much-anticipated news conference planned for Monday at which they were to unveil the plan they negotiated with Graham.
Graham, who spent weeks working with Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) on an immigration measure that will appeal to both parties, wrote in an open letter Saturday to leaders of the climate effort, "Moving forward on immigration -- in this hurried, panicked manner -- is nothing more than a cynical political ploy."
Late last week, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) raised the idea of bringing up immigration legislation before an energy bill, and President Obama on Friday criticized Arizona's tough new immigration law and said Congress must act on immigration or risk leaving the door open to "irresponsibility by others."
In an interview, Graham said he has become convinced that Democrats have decided to push for an immigration overhaul in an effort to mobilize Hispanic voters, a key political bloc, and that only a focused effort on a climate and energy bill could ensure its passage.
Democrats denied that election-related considerations were driving the focus on immigration, and the White House, Reid, and Kerry and Lieberman said they would continue to press ahead with the climate and energy effort.
Even so, Graham's departure greatly undermines Democrats' prospects of picking up the handful of Republican votes needed for passage. "If Senator Graham leaves the effort, a long shot becomes a no-shot," said Joe Stanko, who heads up government relations for the law firm Hunton & Williams and represents several industries that would face new federal regulation under a climate bill.
Graham said he did not see how the Senate could pass any climate and energy bill this year if Senate Democratic leaders and President Obama pushed for immigration reform, as they suggested they would last week.
"The political environment that we needed to have a chance [to pass the bill] has been completely destroyed" by the push for immigration reform, Graham said. "What was hard has become impossible. I don't mind doing hard things. I just don't want to do impossible and stupid things."
He said he had spoken to Reid on Saturday and warned him that he would bolt unless he was assured that the Senate would take up energy legislation first. "What's happened here is mid-terms are on us and Harry Reid's in a state with a heavy Hispanic vote," Graham said.
In a statement, Reid said he will not allow Graham "to play one issue off of another, and neither will the American people."
"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. "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 spokesman Jim Manley called the suggestion that Reid had factored political considerations into his scheduling "absolutely ridiculous."
"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," he said.
The White House declined to indicate whether it would address Graham's concerns, issuing a statement by climate and energy czar Carol M. Browner saying: "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."
Kerry said he would continue to press for passage of comprehensive climate legislation.
"Joe and I will continue to work together and are hopeful that Lindsey will rejoin us once the politics of immigration are resolved," he said in a statement. "The White House and Senate leadership have told us . . . that this is the year for action, and until they tell us otherwise we're pressing forward."