Charlie Brown and the Senate Energy Bill

By Kennedy Maize

Washington, D.C., April 25, 2010 — The Senate has again failed to kick off debate on energy/climate legislation.  A bipartisan group — Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts (D), Joe Lieberman of Connecticut (I-D), and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina (R) — have been laboring for a year to create a bill that could gather 60 Senate votes, enough to defeat a Republican filibuster.  The bill — a legislative Rube Goldberg contraption designed with something for every conceivable interest, perhaps excepting the buggy-whip industry — was to have been unveiled on Monday, April 26.

Forgetaboutit.  Graham announced Saturday that he’s pulling out of the deal and won’t come back to the table.  Graham told reporters he’s upset that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (R-Nev.), along with the Obama administration, has decided to move on Senate immigration legislation before the energy bill.  Immigration has suddenly moved up on the political hit parade, in part because Arizona has decided that it can usurp federal powers on immigration, and in part because Reid is in the race of his life to retain his Senate seat, in part because the administration wants to strengthen its position with the Latino community for the upcoming election. In Nevada, immigration is a major issue, while energy is not a big deal.  So Reid and the White House, hoping to protect Reid, have decided to turn their searchlight on immigration reform.

Graham, one of the few Republicans who will even walk on the same side of the street with Senate Democrats, says that’s unacceptable to him. It’s energy first, or he won’t play the game.  “Moving forward on immigration — in this hurried, panicked manner — is nothing more than a cynical political ploy,” Graham said in a letter to Kerry and Lieberman.  “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.”

That probably means that the game won’t be played, at least this year. Kerry said in a statement, “We all believe that this year is our best and perhaps last chance for Congress to pass a comprehensive approach. We believe that we had reached such an agreement and were excited to announce it on Monday, but regrettably external issues have arisen that force us to postpone only temporarily.”

In the Senate, temporarily usually means forever (defined in Washington terms as “until after the next election”).  The chances that Reid and the White House would allow a Republican Senator to set their political and legislative agendas are slim and none, and Slim just got put on Senate life support.

Some Washington cynics (they constitute a majority in the city) suggest that Graham, as savvy a player who has ever played political football, never really intended to support an energy bill.  Rather, he intended to bring the Democrats to the bargaining table as a way to delay the action. It is, these folks suggest, a case of the political ploy known as “Lucy, Charlie Brown, and the football,” with Graham (Lucy) assuring Charlie that, this time, she won’t pull the football when Charlie (Kerry) goes for the kickoff. Then she grabs the ball away and Charlie falls flat on his back.

A wrinkle on that is that by calling on Reid to move energy first, rather than immigration,  Graham probably understood that he was guaranteeing that immigration would be the first Democratic priority.

Complicating the kerfuffle is the role of the House. The House passed a massive, and massively atrocious, energy/climate bill last June by a narrow score of 219-212, laregely along party lines.  The Senate has refused to take up that bill, which many consider to be a lethal concoction of cracklings, rendered fat, and pulled pork.  The Kerry-Lieberman-Gramm package, as most understand it, is a bit better, but filled with concessions to oil companies, coal, nuclear power, natural gas, biomass, industrial emitters, the auto industry, and so forth. The details aren’t clear, as they were to have been unveiled Monday.

The House also went first on health care legislation, which then dragged on in the Senate. If the House were to take up immigration, it would give the Senate some time to work on energy, while the solons waited for House action.

But House leaders are coy about whether they are willing to go first on the wildly controversial immigration issue. The Christian Science Monitor reported, “House majority leader Steny Hoyer went so far as to say at 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.” Immigration is a more more complicated issue in the House than in the Senate

Ironically, Lindsey Graham is the only Republican working with Senate Democrats on immigration, but says he will drop his support for legislation unless at least one other Republican Senator is willing to join him.