Climate bill abruptly put on hold

Two of President Obama’s top domestic policy initiatives — energy and immigration — appeared on the brink of collapse on Saturday after a Republican senator at the center of both efforts threatened to jump ship in a dispute with Democrats over timing.

Sens. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) said Saturday afternoon that they would postpone the introduction of their long-anticipated energy and climate bill, which they had planned to roll out on Monday. The announcement came after their third partner, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, abruptly pulled out of the effort — at least temporarily.

Graham was irate that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) unexpectedly told fellow Democrats this week that he planned to move an immigration bill in the Senate before the climate bill, an action widely seen as a nod to Latino voters who could make or break Reid’s reelection bid, and which Graham said would cripple the energy bill’s chances.

In a scathing letter on Saturday, Graham blasted Reid and the Obama administration for putting “partisan, political objectives” ahead of the energy bill, and he warned that “moving forward on immigration — in this hurried, panicked manner — is nothing more than a cynical political ploy.”

Graham said he would reengage on the energy bill if Reid backed off his plan to move immigration first. Reid did not directly commit either way, issuing a statement saying immigration and energy “are equally vital to our economic and national security.”

Losing Graham’s support could effectively doom both issues this year. Along with months of work with Kerry and Lieberman on the climate bill, Graham has joined with Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) to draft an immigration bill.

Republican votes are essential to pass either measure, and Graham was seen as the White House’s beachhead in a GOP caucus that has widely opposed Obama’s initiatives.

The Senate calendar is already strained in the wake of the marathon healthcare debate. With midterm elections looming, few analysts expect the Senate to accomplish much after July.

Once a climate bill was introduced, its drafters had planned to send it to the Congressional Budget Office and the Environmental Protection Agency to model its effects on the federal budget, the economy and the environment — a process that was expected to last more than a month. Only after those analyses came back could a bill move toward a vote.

Schumer and Graham do not appear close to producing an immigration bill or lining up the votes for one. But Kerry, Graham and Lieberman had scheduled a morning news conference Monday to announce their plans to limit greenhouse gas emissions and spur domestic energy production. A host of environmental and business leaders were set to fly in to Washington to appear with them.

Kerry postponed the announcement in a news release, saying he and Lieberman “deeply regret that [Graham] feels immigration politics have gotten in the way and for now prevent him from being engaged in the way he intended…. Joe and I will continue to work together and are hopeful that Lindsey will rejoin us once the politics of immigration are resolved.”

The White House appealed for calm, with Obama’s top climate advisor, Carol Browner, saying Obama still supports a bipartisan push on both immigration and energy.

“We have an historic opportunity” on climate, Browner said, adding: “We’re determined to see it happen this year, and we encourage the Senators to continue their important work on behalf of the country and not walk away from the progress that’s already been made.”

Close observers of the climate negotiations were stunned.

“This is a bizarre and crazy implosion,” said Frank Maisano, an energy lobbyist for Bracewell and Giuliani in Washington. “It certainly leaves the process in disarray at a time when we thought they were about ready to move to the next level.”

Opponents of the bill were giddy. Patrick Creighton, a spokesman for the free-market Institute for Energy Research, said: “Chalk this up as a win for the American people.”