Arizona fallout: Can Senate take up immigration reform from scratch?

Arizona's controversial illegal immigration bill has put pressure on Congress to pass immigration reform. But is the Senate leader's vow to take up the issue too 'panicked'?

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina has dropped his support for the energy bill in protest against Senate majority leader Harry Reid's decision to move on immigration reform first.

The signing into law of Arizona’s controversial illegal immigration bill has apparently altered the course of Congress.

Three senators were expecting to introduce a landmark energy bill to reduce greenhouse gases and combat global warming Monday. Now, with Senate majority leader Harry Reid taking up President Obama’s call for urgent immigration reform – saying it is his top priority – the coalition for the climate-change bill is falling apart.

Can the Senate, in the space of a single weekend, actually let immigration reform cut to the front of the legislative line?

No, said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina, who pulled his support for the energy bill in protest against Senator Reid’s intentions.

His reason? Passing major legislation is a long, messy slog – as heath-care reform showed – and Congress has done virtually no spadework to prepare the legislative ground for an illegal immigration bill.

“I know from my own personal experience the tremendous amounts of time, energy, and effort that must be devoted to this issue to make even limited progress,” he said.

Legislative efforts of the past year suggest that there is some truth in his statement.

Thirteen months of spadework

Take financial reform, for example.

On Monday, the Senate is set to vote on a bill. But the process of preparing it began 13 months ago.

On March 26, 2009, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner was testifying before Congress about the broad outlines for financial reform. By mid-June, President Obama had laid out a five-prong plan. And in September – still seven months ago – Mr. Obama was telling Wall Street that the days of “reckless greed” were over.

Yet only now has the bill been deemed ready for the light of a vote.

And immigration reform is likely to be harder. “Immigration is probably the most hotly divided issue in the Senate,” said Thomas Friedman, author of “Hot, Flat, and Crowded” on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

The energy bill itself shows the difficulty of getting major legislation through the Senate. Senator Graham has been working with Sens. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts and Joseph Lieberman (I) of Connecticut for months to try to craft a bipartisan bill. But before bowing out this weekend, Graham remained the only Republican to back it.

Either none or very little of the backroom wrangling needed to shape immigration reform into a workable bill has begun, while the energy bill was essentially ready to go, Graham said.

Immigration reform: Harder than last time?

In a signal of how difficult passage of an immigration reform bill might be, the primary Republican supporter of the 2007 bid for federal immigration reform – Sen. John McCain of Arizona – backed the Arizona law signed by Gov. Jan Brewer last week. He is currently locked in a tight primary race, and 70 percent of Arizona voters approve of the law, according to Rasmussen reports.

The law requires people in Arizona suspected of being illegal immigrants to show proof of legal residence when asked by law enforcement. Critics have called it a vehicle for potential racial profiling. Supporters have said the state needed to do something to try to stem rampant illegal immigration.

House majority leader Steny Hoyer went so far as to say at a Monitor-sponsored breakfast last week that he has questions about whether the Senate can pass immigration reform – and that the House will not take up the issue until the Senate proves it can make headway.

“I am not sure the Senate can move an immigration bill,” he said. Senator Reid “indicates he wants to try to move an immigration bill. If he can move an immigration bill, the position the speaker and I have taken is we will address that matter.”

Graham has questioned Reid’s motives for prioritizing illegal immigration. With Reid in danger of losing his seat this fall, some critics have suggested that the Nevada senator’s move is an attempt to court Nevada’s Hispanics, who make up 26 percent of the state population.

Said Graham: “Moving forward on immigration – in this hurried, panicked manner – is nothing more than a cynical political ploy.”

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