Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, trailing in polls in heavily Hispanic Nevada, wants to pursue legislation to provide legal status for many unlawful immigrants before the Senate tackles a climate change and energy bill and as Democrats defend their congressional majorities ahead of the November congressional elections.
Reid broached the change of priorities during a meeting this week with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, according to two Democratic officials familiar with the developments.
Pelosi has long said the Senate must vote before the House on an immigration bill.
"When you're ready with one, we will take it up," Pelosi says she told Reid.
The slow-moving Senate is far from being ready for debate on either issue. And it's not clear Democrats could muster the 60 votes this year or next to block Republican filibusters of either bill. The president's party traditionally loses seats in midterm elections.
Reid's seat in particular is in peril. The four-term senator, 70, is well-financed and faces only token opposition in the June primary. But independent surveys indicate he is running behind lesser-known Republicans and is being battered by the state's double-digit unemployment and record bankruptcies.
In Nevada, 26 percent of the population is Hispanic, according to the census.
Reid's decision to undertake immigration legislation first came as something of a surprise to the sponsors of the energy and climate change bill, the Democratic officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk openly about the developments.
Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. and Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., are planning to unveil their environmental legislation on Monday. In a private meeting Thursday with fellow Democrats, Reid reaffirmed his commitment to considering the climate bill this year, the officials said.
The House last year narrowly passed a bill creating a system to cap emissions blamed for global warming, but the bill has not been taken up in the Senate.
Pushing the immigration bill ahead of climate legislation would anger many liberals and environmentalists, who see this as their best chance in more than a decade to pass a bill addressing global warming. The Senate bill aims to cut emissions of pollution-causing greenhouse gases 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. It also likely will expand domestic production of oil, natural gas and nuclear power.
Hispanics are a key Democratic constituency alienated to some degree by President Barack Obama's failure to follow through on a campaign pledge to tackle immigration reform during his first year in office. Obama instead focused on the economy and health care reform.
Last month, Obama secured some of the votes his health care overhaul needed to pass by agreeing to do everything in his power to make sure that immigration reform is addressed this year. He made the announcement a few days before tens of thousands of people marched in the nation's capital to press Congress and the administration for immigration reform.
Obama has said the climate bill is one of his top priorities, and he urged business leaders last week to push Congress to pass the long-stalled legislation.
Graham and Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., have drafted the outline of an immigration bill that calls for illegal immigrants to admit they broke the law, pay a fine and back taxes and perform community service if they want to progress toward legal status.
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