Washington was consumed this weekend with one question: When Congress completes work on the financial reform legislation, should it next take up comprehensive immigration reform first or climate change legislation? The discussion has shown precisely why so many people say they have little respect for Congress or its leaders no matter which party is in power.
The under-current of the discussion is that after the health care vote last month, and with midterm elections approaching, it is unreasonable to expect members of Congress to sustain two more tough votes. So, the logic goes, the choice is not which issue to do first, but which to do this year. If one of the issues gets booted to next year, it will come before a new Congress and, not knowing the partisan make-up of either chamber but guessing both will likely include more Republicans, the issue that is postponed may have less of a chance of passage. This is revolting. At a time when millions of Americans are struggling to find work and pay their mortgages, congressmen think voting is tough? It’s their job. If they have to take twenty "tough votes" they should do so, and the President is well advised to remind them of that fact publicly.
There is another under-current to the debate that is equally revolting. I saw a report that quoted an unnamed congressional staffer saying that for the Democrats it made sense to move forward with comprehensive immigration reform whether or not they have the votes because it would help boost Latino turnout this November. To be clear, neither issue should be pursued because it yields partisan advantage; both should be pursued because the nation desperately needs to address these issues. Climate change and immigration reform are both urgent and concerns for political fallout should be relegated to the sidelines. This being Washington, of course, no such relegation is possible.
Curiously, at the center of the Senate’s effort to negotiate a bipartisan bill on both issues is Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina. The conservative legislator is working with New York Sen. Charles Schumer on immigration reform and with Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry on climate change legislation. It would be difficult to over-emphasize how important his continued work with the Democrats is. I hope someone in the White House is prepared to sit down with Sen. Graham and do almost whatever it takes to keep him on board both issues. It is not just the bipartisan label that he brings to the table. Graham is a living rebuke to those, like Sen. John McCain, who have caved into the more conservative and nativist elements in the GOP and have backed off their previous support for immigration reform. Graham’s courage is not only a necessary asset to the President, the South Carolinian is the best hope for the GOP’s future.
I know it is foolish to criticize politicians for considering politics when they make their decisions. But, as President Obama says again and again, good policy is good politics. Congress should undertake both climate change legislation and immigration reform not because they are good or bad politics, but because we need better policies in both areas of national life than the ones we have now. And if any member of Congress wants to pay my mortgage next month, then I will listen to their complaints about "tough" votes; otherwise, I don’t want to hear it.
Michael Sean Winters