Ezra Klein: Why Lindsey Graham is angry

By Ezra Klein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 26, 2010; 12:10 PM

If the policy inside the Kerry-Lieberman-Graham climate change bill seem to have finally come together, it looks like the politics are about to come apart. In a move that's surprised pretty much everybody, Harry Reid and the White House have signaled their intention to turn to immigration reform before they attempt climate-change legislation. And Lindsey Graham is not happy. Despite being the co-author of the the Graham-Schumer immigration bill, Graham wants to see energy move first. And if it doesn't, Graham is threatening to abandon both projects.

Sound petulant? Maybe. But Graham has a legitimate beef here. Climate change is much likelier to pass than immigration reform. For one thing, it's already passed the House. For another, Graham, Kerry, Lieberman and others have spent an extraordinary amount of time sounding out key legislators, business groups, advocacy organizations and pretty much everyone else with a loud voice or an important vote. This is going to be a hard bill to move, but they've spent months doing the hard work necessary to have a chance. (Whether the bill is a good bill worth moving is, I should say, another story entirely.)

The same cannot be said for immigration reform. The House has not considered legislation on the subject. There have not been endless stakeholder meetings or sessions with key legislators. Indeed, when I talk to people about the two issues, the difference is this: When people talk about climate change, they talk about passing a bill. When they talk about immigration reform, they talk about the electoral usefulness of bringing up the issue. In fact, I don't know of anyone who is not paid to be optimistic about an immigration bill passing who thinks that an immigration bill will pass.

And this is why Graham is angry: He's taken a huge risk to be the lone Republican on climate change. Patrick Creighton, a flack for the conservative Institute for Energy Research, says that Graham's involvement makes him "part of one of the most economically devastating pieces of legislation this country has ever seen, no more, no less." And now it looks like Democrats are going to leave that hanging there, moving to an immigration reform effort that won't pass but might split the Republican Party -- creating massive problems for pro-reform Republicans like, well, Lindsey Graham.

Moreover, Graham is right on the merits: Moving a climate change bill this year is more important than moving an immigration bill. 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.

All that said, Democrats obviously have an election to win. Harry Reid, in particular, has an election to win in a state with a very large Hispanic population. And reformers were certainly given a great gift when Arizona decided to write xenophobia into its lawbooks and create a sense of emergency around state-level action on this issue. Put it all together and some Democratic strategists see the chance to bury the GOP's relationship with Hispanics for a generation.

So the politics of this are compelling for the Democrats in general and Reid in particular. But Graham, who wants the Democratic leadership and the White House to stick to the original plan and move a more important bill with a better chance of passage, is not only right to be annoyed, but as far I can tell, is actually right.

All that said, this conflict seems premised on the Senate's presumed inability to do two hard things at once. Lots of people agree that the Senate cannot focus on two big fights at once, but it's never been entirely clear why that's true.

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