Will Hispanic Voters Help Harry Reid?

"Do they want a bill, or do they want an issue?"

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, polling below 40% in his Nevada reelection campaign, has reached for a political lifeline by calling for fast action on immigration reform. He hopes to avoid a repeat of 2004—when the last Democratic leader, Tom Daschle, was tossed from office—by energizing Hispanics, who make up 15% of Nevada voters and could shape outcomes in Colorado and California. What Reid almost certainly won't get is legislation signed into law, since he has no actual bill and concedes he doesn't yet have the votes to bring one up.

That's politics, you might say. Yet by playing this particular line of politics, Reid risks throwing other legislation overboard. Most notably, he endangered a fragile climate change and energy bill that a tripartisan trio of Senators—John Kerry (D-Mass.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.)—was set to introduce on Apr. 26. After Reid signaled that he might move immigration ahead of climate in the legislative queue, Graham bolted from the bill, accusing Reid of a "cynical political ploy" that would threaten both measures. "If you do [immigration] before the groundwork has been laid and you fail, you could go a generation before anyone takes it up," says Graham, one of the few GOP members working with Democrats on either issue—and taking heat for it at home.

Would Reid's ploy even work? Labor unions and Hispanic groups argue that advancing the immigration issue will rally party voters. Unions have been pouring money into Reid's campaign, donating $357,000 since 2005 through the end of last year. Yet Jennifer Duffy, Senate editor for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, sees risks. "It fires up the Republicans even more than they already are," she says.

The last try at an overhaul was in 2007, when the most ambitious attempt to change immigration law in 20 years was blocked in the Senate. President Obama says some states are filling the void with "misguided" efforts such as a new Arizona law requiring police to check the immigration status of anyone suspected of being undocumented. Business groups fear their quest for increases in legal immigration to address worker shortages will be left out of a Democrat-only bill. "The Democratic leadership is facing a question: Do they want a bill or do they want an issue?" says Tamar Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorks, a coalition of state-based business groups that favor comprehensive reform.

Having triggered the uproar, Reid began backing away from the idea, saying immigration and energy were "equally vital. I'm committed to doing both." Or at least talking about them.

The bottom line: Putting immigration atop the agenda could energize Hispanics, but it won't pass a bill. And it could kill any chance of climate action.

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