Political Hay

Lindsey Graham’s Climate Change

How an immigration amnesty may have cost Democrats bipartisan cover on cap and trade.

By 4.26.10

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Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) is gumming up the works. For once, it is the Democrats who are being inconvenienced by his declarations of independence. Today, Graham was to join Sens. John Kerry (D-MA) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT) in releasing a scaled-down cap-and-trade bill. But the grand unveiling was scuttled by Graham's righteous anger over immigration.

Over the weekend, Graham assailed Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's (D-NV) plans to move ahead on immigration before cap and trade. "Moving forward on immigration -- in this hurried, panicked manner -- is nothing more than a cynical ploy," the Palmetto State's senior senator said in a letter. "Unless their plan substantially changes this weekend, I will be unable to move forward on energy independence legislation at this time."

In the aftermath of the health care juggernaut, Graham had been the token Republican senator abetting a Democratic effort to revive the flagging national energy tax. The Kerry-Graham-Lieberman version contains more concessions to business than the Waxman-Markey bill that narrowly passed the House last year. It also tried to streamline the system for capping greenhouse emissions while sticking to the goal of reducing carbon dioxide output by 17 percent over a decade.

Then came the news that Reid wants to pursue "comprehensive immigration reform" after his colleagues are done fooling around with the financial sector. Senator Graham was not amused. "Let's be clear," he said. "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."

Having had the rug pulled out from under him on immigration, Graham returned the favor on climate legislation. But isn't Graham -- lovingly nicknamed "Grahamnesty" by those to his right on immigration -- a supporter of both amnesty and cap and trade? What gives?

There are two reasons for Graham's discontent. The first is that there is no reason to believe that the country is ready to give amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants and increase low-skilled legal immigration when American unemployment stands at 10 percent. This looks more like a Democratic effort to turn out Hispanic voters -- crucial in Senate races like Reid's in Nevada -- rather than a serious attempt to overhaul the nation's immigration laws.

Reid's strategy: offer up amnesty to check the boxes for Latino activist groups only to have Republicans take the lead in voting it down. This will also have the effect of pushing a vote on cap and trade closer to the midterm elections, making it less likely to pass. Republican defectors like Lindsey Graham will be asked to walk the plank twice, with nothing to show for it.

An early immigration fight particularly inconveniences Graham's friend Sen. John McCain (R-AZ). McCain is locked in a tough primary fight with former Congressman J.D. Hayworth. The incumbent's amnesty advocacy is a major reason for his vulnerability. Gov. Jan Brewer just read the tea leaves and signed Arizona's new attrition through enforcement law, concluding that to do otherwise in a state fed up with illegal immigration was political suicide.

But if McCain is forced to vote against the approach to immigration policy he has spent the last decade defending, he will have to answer for his flip-flop with those who supported him during the dark days of McCain-Kennedy. That indignity John McCain's Mini-Me in the Senate cannot allow.

Of course, some Democrats hope they can ram through both amnesty and cap and trade as they did health care. Senate Democrats have written into their budget resolution the proviso that "jobs legislation," however defined, can be enacted through the expedited reconciliation process. Any energy legislation considered by the Senate this year will purport to create green jobs, potentially making it filibuster-proof.

The idea is to pass as much of the liberal wish list as possible before Democrats lose congressional seats in November. But a rapid succession of politically risky votes in an election year is bound to take its toll on senators and congressmen representing swing states. Growing conservative pressure could make Republican defectors willing to vote for such bills hard to come by.

If such pressure can work on perpetual mavericks like McCain and Graham, it can brought to bear on anyone inside the GOP. The Buggles once sang that video killed the radio star. Might amnesty kill cap and trade?

We can't rewind, we've gone too far.

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About the Author

W. James Antle III, author of the new book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?, is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and a senior editor of The American Spectator. You can follow him on Twitter @jimantle.