At a news conference where TV cameras in the back were nearly stacked on top of each other, an influential bipartisan group of five senators introduced legislation late last month to overhaul the nation’s immigration system. The room was so crowded that no open seats or standing room could be found.
A week later, one senator, Republican Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, was standing at the podium in the same room to unveil her energy-policy blueprint. There were several open seats and just a few cameras. At least one reporter was there to ask the senator about her position on President Obama’s choice for Defense secretary, former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel.
“I’m doing energy right now,” Murkowski responded. “I’m focused on that.”
Almost everyone else on Capitol Hill is focused on something else. Aside from the broad fiscal issues, Congress and the president are galvanizing around immigration reform.
Four years ago, the White House prioritized health care reform above comprehensive climate-change legislation. The former will go down in history as one of Obama’s most significant accomplishments. The latter is in the perpetual position of second fiddle. “To everything,” Murkowski interjected fervently when asked by National Journal Daily whether energy and climate policy was second to other policies in Washington’s pecking order.
Murkowski, ranking member of the Senate's Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said she hoped the Super Bowl blackout would help the public understand the importance of energy policy.
“This issue of immigration: Why are we all focused on that? Well, it’s because the Republicans lost the election because in part we did not have the Hispanic community behind us,” Murkowski said this week. “What is it that brings about that motivation? Maybe it could be something like a gap in the Super Bowl causes the focus on energy that we need to have. I can only hope.”
It will take more than hope. Elections have consequences, but so far the only kind of electoral consequence climate and energy policy has instigated is one that helped some lawmakers who supported cap-and-trade legislation to lose their seats in the 2010 midterm elections. For the pendulum to swing the other way—for lawmakers to lose their seats over not acting on climate and energy policy—seems almost unfathomable right now.
Billions of dollars are invested in the fossil-fuel power plants, refineries, and pipelines that the country depends on today. The companies that own this infrastructure have a business interest in keeping things the way they are. Immigration reform doesn’t face such formidable interests invested in the status quo.
“They [businesses] have employees—real, visible people—who they value and who they want to make legal as soon as possible,” said Chris Miller, who until earlier this year was the top energy and environment adviser to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
On energy and climate-change policy, Miller added, “You’re probably never going to have anything like the fence in the Southwest or the border-control issue that pushes action and debate on immigration, because climate-change impacts will likely continue to be more abstract in the public's mind until those impacts are so crystal-clear it’s too late for us to do anything.”
Another, tactical reason helps build momentum on immigration and not on other issues. Obama can capitalize on immigration as it becomes more of a wedge issue within the GOP. On energy and climate policy, Obama faces a unified Republican Party.
“The president has cracked the code on how to push his agenda items through. He learned from his victories on the payroll tax and the fiscal cliff that the key is to stake out the political high ground on issues that poll in his favor while exploiting the divisions within the GOP,” said a former Republican leadership aide who would speak only on the condition of anonymity. “With this in mind, the next logical place for him to go is immigration. Unlike issues like energy or tax reform where the GOP is united, he can claim a big win on immigration reform while striking a political blow to Republicans.”
While Obama maneuvers for a big legislative win on immigration, he’s moving on a parallel track toward another win on climate change through Environmental Protection Agency rules controlling greenhouse-gas emissions, which don’t require congressional approval. Fresh off a strong reelection victory, Obama has more freedom to move unilaterally with EPA.
“He doesn't have to expend political capital or ask Democrats to extend their necks on this issue,” said Kevin Book, an energy analyst at the Washington-based consulting firm ClearView Energy Partners. “He already won. He can control the issue and move as fast or slow as he wants.”
The EPA action will only further polarize efforts, such as those by Murkowski on the Senate Energy panel, to move through Congress smaller bits of energy and environmental policy.
At that point, this second fiddle might not even be in the band.
This article appears in the Feb. 7, 2013, edition of National Journal Daily.