WASHINGTON (Reuters) - One of President Barack Obama’s top priorities -- tackling global warming -- suffered a severe setback on Saturday when a fight over immigration derailed plans to unveil a compromise climate change bill.
A bipartisan group of senators led by Democrat John Kerry had been aiming to outline details of their climate change bill on Monday.
That plan was canceled after Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, a member of the working group, threatened to pull out if Democrats pushed for a debate on an overhaul of immigration before doing the huge environmental and energy legislation.
Without Graham on board, efforts to pass climate control legislation could be doomed, as he was expected to work to win more Republican support for the bill.
Kerry later announced that “regrettably, external issues have arisen that force us to postpone” advancing the climate control bill, which also would have expanded U.S. nuclear power generation and offshore oil drilling.
The Massachusetts Democrat indicated the three senators had agreed on the details of a bill before Graham sent his letter.
Kerry added that he and independent Senator Joseph Lieberman would continue working to advance the legislation “and are hopeful that Lindsey will rejoin us once the politics of immigration are resolved.”
The Senate climate legislation, under close international scrutiny, would have reduced U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide pollution, which is blamed for causing global warming and results from burning fossil fuels, such as coal and oil, to generate electricity, power factories and operate cars and trucks.
That legislation also would was expected to introduce a new trading system for pollution permits, similar to programs in the European Union and among 10 northeastern U.S. states, to cut pollution.
A Democratic Party aide suggested that key figures were scrambling late on Saturday to find a way to put back on track what may be a last-ditch effort this year for climate-change legislation.
“There’s huge movement to find an accommodation between (Senate Majority Leader Harry) Reid, Graham, and the White House,” the aide told Reuters.
“The environmental community is sounding the alarm that they need the majority leader to put the pieces back together or they’ll hold him accountable,” the aide added.
REID UNDER PRESSURE
The flare-up over immigration came a day after Arizona Governor Janice Brewer, a Republican running for reelection, signed into law a tough immigration measure that Obama called “misguided.”
Reid, like many Democrats in Congress, is in a tough race for reelection in November and is facing pressure in his state to pass immigration reform, while others want a climate control bill. There is little time left in the legislative calendar.
Democrats, who have a majority in Congress, have signaled they want to pass the climate bill as well as legislation to provide a path for some 11 million people in the United States illegally -- many of them Hispanics -- to gain citizenship.
Hispanics, a key voting bloc who tend to favor Democrats, and other groups have pushed for the legislation, which would also increase border security and reform rules for temporary workers in the United States, which is important to the business community.
The effort to pass the two major bills this year has angered Republicans, many of whom oppose both measures. Graham is seen as a key player on both the climate and immigration issues.
The fate of both bills depends on the ability of Reid and Obama to forge an agreement with Republicans, who have resisted cooperating for the past two years on most major Democratic initiatives.
Carol Browner, the White House’s top energy and climate advisor, said on Saturday, “We have an historic opportunity to finally enact measures that will break our dependence on foreign oil, help create clean energy jobs and reduce carbon pollution.”
She urged the three senators to continue their efforts.
Reid said Graham was under “tremendous pressure” from his party “not to work with us on either measure.”
“I appreciate the work of Senator Graham on both of these issues,” Reid said, adding that Americans “expect us to do both and they will not accept the notion that trying to act on one is an excuse for not acting on the other.”
Graham has been chafing all week over reports that Democratic leaders were signaling that immigration changes could be the next big legislative push in the Senate after it finishes a bill to overhaul financial regulations.
“Moving forward on immigration -- in this hurried, panicked manner -- is nothing more than a cynical political ploy,” Graham said in a letter on Saturday to Kerry and Lieberman.
Graham said debate on the controversial immigration changes was not ripe and should occur next year, after the November congressional elections.
The climate bill, however, already faced an uphill battle in the Senate before it became enmeshed in the battle over immigration.
If Congress fails to approve climate legislation this year, it could try again in 2011. If all efforts collapse in Congress, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has said it would begin regulating greenhouse gases for the first time, an outcome business and environmental groups wish to avoid. They prefer legislation tailored to their needs.
Additional reporting by Steve Holland in Asheville, North Carolina; Editing by Paul Simao
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