Senate's Reid Makes Immigration A Bigger Priority

Majority Leader Harry Reid has surprised his colleagues by announcing that the Senate will take up immigration after overhauling financial regulations. Reid is trailing in the polls in his bid for reelection in Nevada, and critics charge his decision on immigration is just a political move.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And Im Renee Montagne.

Given that President Obama is in the thick of a tough fight to get the Senate to pass a bill to rein in Wall Street, it came as a surprise when the Senate majority leader announced he's taking up another hot-button issue. Senator Harry Reid says immigration is next. And thats not only surprised but also upset one Republican who has supported a new immigration measure, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

Joining us now, as she does most Mondays, for some perspective, is NPR's Cokie Roberts. Good morning.

COKIE ROBERTS: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Now, if Senator Graham wants to work with Democrats on immigration, why is he angry that Senator Reid has decided to put it up next on the agenda?

ROBERTS: Well, because they expected energy to be next, and Senator Graham has also been working with Democrats John Kerry and independent Joe Lieberman on an energy bill, which they expected to roll out today. And you know, on the energy bill, which has some chance of actually passing, Lindsey Grahams taken a lot of flack for it in South Carolina. And now, he's ready to take some credit for actually getting it passed just as Senator Reid seems to be putting it on a back burner.

And Graham says that Reid is just bringing up immigration for political reasons - to please Hispanics in Nevada, where he has got a tough re-election campaign. And Reid says Graham is reacting the way he is because he's under pressure from his own party for cooperating with the Democrats.

MONTAGNE: So, sounds like they each have a case.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: Yeah, they both do, in fact.

Arizona, as you know, passed this tough immigration bill at the end of last week that makes it against state law to be an undocumented alien in the state, and tells local police to find and arrest them. There's a huge amount of upset over that bill. There've been demonstrations over the weekend; more are planned for next weekend. The Catholic cardinal of Los Angeles, Roger Mahoney, says it encouraged German Nazi and Russian communist techniques.

And Democrats want to keep the fact that it was a Republican legislature and a Republican governor that signed the bill - they want to keep that in the news. So they want to bring up immigration to show that the Democrats are on the side of Hispanics. So Graham is absolutely right that it's political. But it's also true that he is getting a whole lot of grief for actually trying to work with Democrats on a variety of legislation.

MONTAGNE: And then, of course, Senator Harry Reid gets to bring up the next bill that he wants to bring up. So what happens to the energy bill?

ROBERTS: Well, Senators Kerry and Lieberman say that they will find a way to bring it up. Theyve done a huge amount of work, along with Senator Graham, to get business and some environmental groups behind the bill, and groups like the Christian Coalition on board. So they very much want to get it to the floor.

The House has already passed an energy bill and the House, you know, is saying look, we have already done this thing that is so politically risky that the Senate has to act because otherwise, we've just cast a vote that is meaningless without the bill passing.

This is, by the way, Renee, the reason the House hates the Senate. They always say the Senate's the true enemy, not the opposition party. Because the House would go out on these limbs and then the Senate will not act, and it puts them, you know, in a politically untenable position.

Which is why Speaker Pelosi has said on immigration, basically - look, if the Senate wants to take up an immigration bill, have themselves a ball. She's not going to do it unless the Senate acts because she knows that this is something that is very unlikely to get through both houses of Congress.

MONTAGNE: And Cokie, back to that financial regulation bill. The tone has changed rather dramatically since we talked about it just last week. And may I just say two words: Goldman Sachs?

ROBERTS: Right, two very important words. More leaked emails over the weekend from a Senate committee. As Republicans say, this is Democrats leaking these memos or emails for political reasons in order to pass the financial reform bill. And these are emails saying - Goldman saying, we're going to make a whole lot of money off of the housing crisis. Yippee.

MONTAGNE: And they did.

ROBERTS: And they did. And Democrats say yeah, it might be political but it's going to work. And even though Republicans might vote not to end debate on the bill today, they are likely to get behind a financial regulation bill.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much. NPR's Cokie Roberts.

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