Why Graham Dumped the Democrats

South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham's getting an enormous amount of flack for subtracting his initial from the Kerry-Graham-Lieberman energy bill that was due to be revealed this morning. Graham's decision delays debate and could possibly be fatal for the bill's prospects. Why did Graham decide pull out?

"Moving forward on immigration -- in this hurried, panicked manner -- is nothing more than a cynical political ploy," he wrote in a letter released this weekend. Even though Graham has been working with New York's Sen. Chuck Schumer on an immigration bill, the South Carolina senator's charge has a basis in reality.Senate majority leader Harry Reid decided to prioritize immigration for at least two reasons, one of them naked political self-interest: his standing with Latinos in his own state is not where it needs to be for him to be reelected, and he promised them, quite recently, that he would move aggressively on immigration.

According to Democratic strategists, Latinos need to make up at least 15 percent of the electorate in Nevada for Reid to have a chance at winning. They're now saying they'll turn out at about a rate of 10 percent. The White House, knowing full well that Reid's leadership on health care may have permanently damaged his reelection chances, is not going to stand in Reid's way.

Reid's second rationale is also political: he reasons that the toughest vote House Democrats took in 2009 was on the Waxman-Markey Climate Change legislation. He doesn't want to subject his vulnerable Senate colleagues to the same pressures, and he doesn't want to bring up a bill that would hurt the Democratic Party's chances of keeping the House of Representatives.

Add to this the sudden nationalization of the immigration issue by the passage of Arizona's draconian new law allowing police to demand the papers of suspected illegal immigrants on sight.

The Democrats reason that, the politics of immigration being what they are, getting an actual bill through Congress by November is not likely. (Graham understands this, too.) What is likely is a bill that will allow Democrats who need to oppose immigration reform in theory because of its alleged "amnesty" provisions to do so -- while allowing the party, behind the scenes, to whip up the Hispanic vote and communicate to Latinos that the promise of pushing reform is being fulfilled. They also anticipate that President Obama will take unilateral action to fix current problems -- maybe he'll send troops to the border, maybe he'll ask the Department of Homeland Security to ease up on enforcement in the name of the economy. The House hasn't done anything on immigration yet, and won't do so until the Senate finishes. So House Democrats won't need to worry about a tough vote.

So Graham, who has been working in good faith with Democrats and the White House, has ample reason to be upset. But Graham also faces severe political cross-pressures. He is increasingly a voice of one in his conference. His colleagues have urged him not to cooperate with Democrats. His best friend, John McCain, will face a hard choice on immigration reform measures in the Senate. And at home, Graham's political standing is at an ebb. The word "Grahamnesty" is floated to around to describe his less-than-pure position on immigration. On top of that, he faces a bizarre and unseemly whisper campaign by state Tea Party activists about his sexual orientation.

Other Democrats insist that climate change and energy legislation is still on track, but that track doesn't extend much beyond the 60-vote threshold to start debate because it hasn't been built yet.
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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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