By Shailagh Murray and Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 28, 2010; A03
Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid backed off Tuesday from his pledge to fast-track an overhaul of the nation's immigration laws, after fellow Democrats voiced skepticism and a key Republican supporter abandoned the effort.
Meanwhile, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said the Justice Department may sue Arizona over a new state law that authorizes police to question the immigration status of anyone they suspect of being in the country illegally. "I'm very concerned about the wedge it could draw between communities that law enforcement is supposed to serve and those of us in law enforcement," Holder said.
Reid (D), who is facing a tough reelection battle in his home state of Nevada, surprised the White House and many of his Capitol Hill colleagues April 10 when he said that a broad immigration bill "cannot wait." He told a cheering crowd in Las Vegas, "We're going to have comprehensive immigration reform now."
That angered Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), the chief GOP negotiator on immigration, who accused Reid of engaging in a "cynical political ploy" to win Hispanic votes, given that the House has not even called up an immigration bill. Graham withdrew his support from a separate climate-change proposal that he had been prepared to endorse, and on Tuesday, he announced that he would oppose any immigration measure until U.S. border security had been improved.
With the fate of two Democratic priorities suddenly thrown into question, Reid said Tuesday that he would not dictate the sequencing of the two measures. He added that both remained on the horizon after the Senate concludes its current debate on financial regulations.
"If you have a bill that's ready to go, that's the one I'm going to go to" after the Senate concludes its current debate on financial regulations, Reid said. But he added, "Immigration and energy are equally vital to our economic and national security, and we've ignored both of them for far too long. I'm committed to doing both this session of Congress."
But other Democrats, including senior Obama administration officials, concede privately that an immigration bill is unlikely to move forward in 2010. They fret about the political cost in November should a Democratic-controlled Senate try and fail to pass a bill.
But he suggested Tuesday during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing that the prudent course is to go slowly. Congress could pass a comprehensive bill, he said, "by 2012 if we're smart, and we address the big elephant in the room, and that is that our borders are broken and there's a war going on," a reference to the rampant drug-related violence that has gripped Mexico.
He added that, while he opposes the Arizona law, it reflects legitimate public anger. "Good people are so afraid of an out-of-control border that they had to resort to a law that I think is unconstitutional -- it doesn't represent the best way forward," Graham said.
Some Democrats have wondered privately whether Graham's new, go-slow position on immigration is a favor in behalf of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a friend. The onetime GOP presidential nominee is locked in a taut primary fight, and a Washington debate over immigration legislation is the last thing he wants right now. But GOP consultant John Weaver, who is close to both men, insists that Graham is not doing McCain's bidding.
Reid accused Republicans such as Graham and McCain of abandoning their moderate stances on immigration in response to conservative pressure. "Republicans can't have it both ways," Reid said. "They can't be passing laws like they did in Arizona and making all the statements they're making in Arizona and around the country blaming it on Washington, and then we have senators from Arizona and Lindsey Graham who don't want us to move to the legislation."
Despite declining prospects for a bipartisan deal, Schumer has scheduled meetings for Wednesday and Thursday with a handful of other Republicans, to gauge their support. "We're moving along," Schumer said. "You will see some things happening."
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told Graham and other lawmakers at Tuesday's hearing that the Southern border "is as secure as it has ever been." She noted that the federal government has met security demands voiced by lawmakers in 2006 and 2007, when Congress last considered an immigration overhaul.
For example, Napolitano said, the number of Border Patrol agents has doubled to 20,000 since 2002, including 4,000 in Arizona. The number of illegal border crossers in Arizona caught by the Border Patrol has dropped by half since 2000, although the agency now makes more arrests there than in any other state.
"One of the questions we need to talk about is whether securing the border is ever going to be reached in the sense of Congress, or whether that goal post is going to keep moving," she said.
Staff writers Spencer S. Hsu and Michael D. Shear contributed to this report.