All right, all right, I suppose I have to say something about the Graham situation, as much as the entire subject just saps my life force.

For those of you who haven’t been keeping track: Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has threatened to pull his support from the climate bill he’s been working on — even help filibuster it — if Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) follows through on his recent vow to push immigration reform in the Senate this year. Reid backed down a little earlier this week, saying he’d put energy ahead of immigration, but now Graham has dug his heels in and said he’ll bail on climate if Reid pushes immigration at all this session. In response, Reid accused Graham of “gall” and said he wouldn’t allow the bills to be played off each other. And that’s where things stand.

Now, to a normal human being, this doesn’t make much sense (though perhaps it’s redundant to say that in reference to the U.S. Senate). Why are the two issues even related? WTF is going on?

Here, in no particular order, are a few of the background considerations at work:

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  • Immigration got forced: The Arizona racial profiling bill has pushed immigration back into the spotlight and increased the need for federal action.
  • Dems need Hispanics: Reid is in a frantic battle for reelection and badly needs Nevada’s considerable Hispanic population to turn out; he thinks/hopes a fight on immigration would do the trick. More broadly, the Dems face a dire midterm election situation and they all need Hispanics to turn out. (By contrast, no one thinks enviros can or will have any effect on turnout whatsoever, except for in a few coastal enclaves.)
  • McCain fears immigration: Graham’s dear friend John McCain (R-Ariz.) is currently battling a right-wing challenger in a state where he’s increasingly unpopular. He has traditionally been a “maverick” on immigration, but he’s been tacking right on that like everything else. Mostly he’d just like to avoid it. Lots of folks think Graham is doing a solid for McCain.
  • Immigration is theater: Virtually no one thinks an immigration bill can actually pass this year; there’s been little work on it and there’s no actual legislative language. So lots of folks view this as a political stunt by Reid for purely self-interested reasons.
  • Climate is doomed without Graham and he knows it: There is no Plan B on climate legislation in the Senate right now. If it falls, apart the best anyone can hope for is the tepid “energy-only” bill that Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) is once again pushing. (Nice party discipline, Bingaman. Way to be helpful at just the right moment.)
  • Graham’s exposure: Graham has lately been taking on the “maverick” role recently vacated by the Incredible Shrinking McCain. He’s pretty much the sole Republican interlocutor on both climate and immigration, and he’s been taking heavy fire from the right for both. By all indications he’s been participating in the climate process in good faith, but he’s understandably leery about having both these issues in play at once.

And so on. Sad to say, this is the U.S. Senate, where matters of incredible inter-generational consequence are decided by the whims and raw electoral interests of elderly white men with enormous, fragile egos. Whee!

To me, the central and most salient fact is that Graham is holding all the cards. Whether you think he has a legitimate beef with Reid or he’s just looking for an excuse to bail, it’s difficult to see what leverage could be brought to bear on him. And please, let’s not waste our time discussing how important climate is. That’s irrelevant to this situation. The only question is, who’s got power and leverage over whom?

Graham right now is about the only sane Republican in the Senate. If he wants to, he can take his balls and go home. He can single-handedly sink both immigration and climate. There just won’t be bills on either subject without his participation.

What pressure can Obama and Reid bring to bear on him? Public haranguing? That only strengthens him within his party. Can they withhold support or money? No. Can they threaten his legislative priorities? No; alienating him leaves their own agenda stranded.

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What then? How is this going to play out? Right now, nobody knows. I see three ways it could go:

1. Dems crack and abandon immigration until after the midterms. This would be a pretty huge political blow at this point. Now that it’s been made into this battle of wills, immigration groups are all fired up. If Reid tosses them overboard now, after all this, Hispanics could well stay home en masse during the midterms. Reid could lose; Dems could lose both houses. On top of all that, it will be an extraordinary humiliation: one Republican bending the entire Dem party to his will. I suppose Reid and Obama could do this if they were completely dedicated to getting a climate bill, but there’s been no sign of that intensity of support.

2. Obama flatters Graham’s ego. Graham is similar to McCain in that he’s a self-glorifying narcissist who loves being the center of attention. It’s possible that Obama could turn on the charm, invite him over for a one-on-one, do a press conference with him, something to show the world how Very Very Important Graham is. Sadly, the fate of the world really does turn on such matters.

3. Dems find a new Republican. Graham has total power over the fate of the climate bill because he’s the only Republican working on it — supposedly he’s a “bridge” to other R votes. If another Republican got an attack of conscience and realized that it’s important to address the largest problem of our age, he or she could step forward and take over Graham’s role. This is, to put it mildly, unlikely. The Maine moderates (Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe) wouldn’t impress any of their colleagues, and anyway, Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) has given Collins an easy out on this with their pony bill. Scott Brown (Mass.) could potentially be brought aboard, but he’s not brave or smart enough to do it first. George LeMieux (Fla.)? Richard Lugar (Ind.)? I don’t see it.

All those options seem unpleasant or unlikely, so … it’s a real pickle. I’m sure right now Obama, Rahm Emanuel, Jim Messina, Phil Schiliro, and any number of congressional staffers are working the phones, fumbling around for some way out.

Even if they find it, though, this kind of botched, half-ass rollout does not bode well for a bill that was already facing steep odds — a bill that, though it allegedly has the support of industry groups, has not been seen by anyone, even other senators. (It’s the Sasquatch of bills, as Kate Sheppard puts it.)

At this point if Kerry, Graham, and Lieberman pull a rabbit out of the hat, it will be a bona fide miracle.


Read more perspectives on the Graham-Reid mess: