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Why Democrats shouldn't toy with Lindsey Graham

By Gloria Borger, CNN Senior Political Analyst
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Gloria Borger says Lindsey Graham recalls the old John McCain, leaning across the aisle
  • But Reid's prioritizing immigration reform over climate change has angered Graham, she says
  • Dems switched focus to woo Hispanics as tough midterm election approaches, she says
  • Borger: Graham not up for reelection; it's important because Obama needs his cooperation
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(CNN) -- Sen. Lindsey Graham is the new John McCain. Scratch that. Actually, he's the old John McCain.

That is, he's an independent Republican, often a lonely soul as he works with Democrats to get some deals on intractable issues such as climate change, immigration reform and the closing of Guantanamo Bay.

McCain used to be right there with the South Carolina Republican. Only now he's too busy (and electorally challenged) fending off a right-wing primary assault in Arizona. Seems that the 'maverick' moniker doesn't work as well when it means crossing the aisle to work with those big-government Democrats. So McCain's old Senate role became Lindsey Graham's new Senate role.

Until recently. That's when Graham went ballistic, in the finest McCain tradition, after discovering through media reports that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was about to pull a fast one by bringing up immigration reform before climate change.

It's not that Graham hasn't worked on both issues. He has, and mightily so. It's just that he strongly believes that climate change is:

a) Legislation that's ready to go.

b) Actually has a chance of passage.

c) Is something business actually wants to get done.

Oh, and by the way, he also believes with good reason that Reid only changed the Senate schedule because immigration reform:

a) Helps energize Hispanic voters for Democrats.

b) Helps Reid with Hispanic voters back home in Nevada.

c) Shows Hispanic voters that the Democrats tried, even if the bill fails.

That's why Graham wrote an open letter declaring that "Moving forward on immigration -- in this hurried, panicked manner -- is nothing more than a cynical political ploy." And it's also why Reid and the White House made it clear the next day that the Senate can take up both measures. In fact, now Reid has said that he's happy to do either bill that's ready first.

Here's the truth: Senators are not excited about voting on either measure before the election.

Climate change legislation could require tax increases, although one late compromise version eliminates the "carbon linkage fee" and replaces it with a plan that would allow companies to buy carbon allowances. Even so, as one aide to a senator in the Democratic leadership told me, "after stimulus, after the bailouts, after health care, the last thing Democrats want to do is vote on something that could be called a tax raiser."

But at least one version of a climate change bill has passed the House. The same cannot be said for legislation on immigration reform, which hasn't even been written. While Graham and his colleagues, Democrat John Kerry and independent Joe Lieberman, have been toiling for six months on energy, immigration reform has languished; hence, the anger of Latino groups.

So sure, Democrats would like a test vote to get out their base. But there has to be a real bill to vote on, and there isn't any. The only reality is the political reality: Renewing the call for immigration reform is a good base-builder for Democrats afraid of what may happen to them in the 2010 midterm elections.

Reid's strategy, however, is not without some risk. I've spoken with a number of Democratic strategists who shake their heads at Reid's move.

"What Democrats need to do is spend the rest of the year voting on issues where Democrats are on the same side as the public," says one Democratic strategist. "It's all going to crowd out the message of jobs, economic reform and health care reform."

In other words, with a 10 percent unemployment rate, voters may well be less hospitable to a measure that ensures that there will be more people competing for jobs.

As for the White House, it's clear that Reid's decision was not part of any coordinated strategy. In fact, just the opposite.

The administration wants to pass both measures, but neither have the votes right now. So they're preoccupied with herding the cats for both issues, not scheduling.

So where does this leave Lindsey Graham?

Angry, to be sure. He was out there on a limb, getting trashed back home for working with Senate Democrats. He even got censured by a few chapters of the South Carolina Republican Party. But he's not up for re-election until 2014 ,and no one is screaming about challenging him, at least not yet.

And that's a good thing. Because the White House needs to keep Lindsey Graham in the game, not sulking on the sidelines.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gloria Borger.