WASHINGTON - OCTOBER 15: U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) speaks to the media after a meeting with Assistant Treasury Secretary Neel Kashkari on Capitol Hill October 15, 2008 in Washington, DC. Schumer met with Kashkari to discuss the economy and the financial crisis. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Schumer is taking a lead role in immigration — and is pushing Democrats to prioritize a potentially toxic issue leading up to the November elections. Kerry is a lead negotiator on climate change and is demanding that a climate bill get pushed to the front of the line.
Kerry and Schumer — who have a history of competitive tensions — are maneuvering behind the scenes to get White House and Senate leadership to promise to give their respective issues time this spring.
But the reality is that there is room for only one more big issue on the 2010 agenda: the so called third thing, after health care and financial reform. And accomplishing even one will be a serious stretch for lawmakers unwilling to take on another politically explosive fight after the bruising health care battle.
“If it’s a competition, then it’s a good competition,” said Jim Kessler, a former policy and legislative director for Schumer. “Each one independently has its own challenges.”
Schumer is quietly spreading the word within the immigration community that he has the White House’s support to pass a bill by April. At the same time, Kerry has been mounting his own campaign to pass a climate bill — telling environmentalists, business groups and fellow senators that his bill will pass this spring, ideally by June.
“Schumer would lead us all to believe that the White House is completely on board with doing all that in that time frame,” said Bruce Josten, head of government relations at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, whose lobbyists have met several times with Schumer and his staff.
Both offices declined to comment on any sort of competition between their bosses. But the realities of timing and the increasingly rough 2010 election environment for Democrats might mean both issues get punted into 2011.
“All of these things are huge lifts,” said a Republican aide. “How many forklifts do they have around here?”
Schumer and Kerry are not only competing for political airtime but also wooing the same Republican for support: South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham.
Graham is working with both Kerry and Schumer to craft plans that could attract more Republican backing — but he says it’s too early to start playing favorites.
“Right now, Sen. Graham’s attention is focused on trying to stop a government takeover of health care,” said Kevin Bishop, Graham’s communications director.
Although former aides describe the relationship between the two men as respectful, Kerry and Schumer have clashed in the past. Three years ago, Schumer challenged Kerry on the Senate floor after the former presidential candidate refused to share his campaign e-mail lists with Schumer, who was then chairman of the Senate campaign arm. Kerry eventually handed over the list but not before the two were spotted in a heated confrontation on the Senate floor.
But Kerry might not back down as easily this time. The Massachusetts Democrat has spent months working overtime on the climate bill, even traveling to Copenhagen last month to represent the Senate Democrats at international climate talks.
“We, too, are making progress,” he told international delegates at the negotiations. “Every day we are building support in the Senate, across the political spectrum.”
Schumer is equally invested in guiding an immigration bill to the floor, after assuming the chairmanship of the Senate immigration subcommittee from Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) last year. His work on the issue dates back to 1986, when he brokered a key compromise that helped pass the first major immigration overhaul in decades.
“The only reason [immigration] has a shot is because [Schumer] has a pretty good understanding of what it would take to do it,” said Kessler.
Leadership aides insist that both bills could get done this year.
“Lots of people want different things,” said Jim Manley, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). “But as of right now, we still hope to deal with climate change and immigration this year.”
Democratic aides in both the House and the Senate say the winning issue will be whichever one attracts the most Republican support. Both immigration and climate bills will need backing from moderate Democrats like Sens. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, Evan Bayh of Indiana and Ben Nelson of Nebraska.
It has long been assumed that the climate bill would emerge as the final big issue of the year in the Senate, since immigration has been so divisive.
But immigration got a boost in recent weeks, when top White House officials scheduled a conference call to reassure Latino activists that they would move on a reform bill this year.
Advocates argue that taking up immigration could help boost turnout among Latino voters in the midterm elections and drive a wedge between the GOP and Latino voters.
“The whole reason some people on the Democratic side view immigration as a great issue is because there is a side of the Republican Party that frankly cannot help itself on the issue,” said a senior Republican aide. “They go ballistic, and it comes across as anti-Hispanic — that’s not what they intend, but that’s the way it is perceived.”
But even immigration activists admit that the economy is a serious hurdle.
“The economy creates a kind of sense of shrinking horizons,” said Henry Cisneros, a Clinton administration Cabinet secretary who has spoken to the White House about passing a bill this year. “People who were supportive of the regularization of immigration now place that as a lesser priority or are openly hostile in the belief that the workers take their jobs.”
And while immigration has new momentum, the climate bill is drifting. In recent weeks, moderate Democrats and Republicans have slammed the climate bill — leaving some, including Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), to publicly conclude that the legislation would not be passed this year.
This sentiment outrages environmentalists, who’ve spent nearly a decade pushing for global warming legislation. If the bill fails to gain traction this year — or if Congress passes an energy bill instead — climate activists fear they will be put off indefinitely.
If Congress fails to act, the Environmental Protection Agency will proceed with regulations to curb greenhouse gas emissions across the economy. Those rules are likely to start in 2011, right as President Barack Obama campaigns for reelection.
“They’re not going to want immigration to be put in front of climate because they’re not going to want the EPA to start regulating and raising electricity prices on their backs,” said Brian Wolff, a former political adviser to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) who now works as head lobbyist for the Edison Electric Institute. “Climate will definitely be going before any of those really, really hot-button issues like immigration.”
But aides say the agenda is far from settled — and that’s why Kerry and Schumer are intensifying their efforts to nudge to the front of the line.
“I don’t think the year is firmly fleshed out yet,” said a Democratic aide. “There has not been a sort of planning out of this year yet, mostly because health care has been the all-dominating issue.”