Washington (CNN) – Sen. Saxby Chambliss said Sunday that Democrats are playing politics with the issue of immigration reform. The Georgia Republican also suggested that the Senate should have higher priorities than immigration reform and energy legislation just now.
“I’m not sure how you can really justify bringing either one of them up at this point,” Chambliss said on CNN’s State of the Union.
He added that the Senate has yet to make any progress on the budget or the many appropriations bills necessary to fund the federal government’s operations.
“We’ve got a lot of work left on our plate between now and the end of the summer,” he said, noting that the Senate was about to take up financial regulatory reform. “I’m not sure where you find the time to deal with these other major issues,” Chambliss told CNN Chief Political Correspondent Candy Crowley.
Asked by Crowley whether political considerations are pushing Democrats to move immigration onto the front burner during this midterm election year, the Republican did not hesitate.
“Oh sure, I mean it’s pretty clear that’s what this is all about," he responded.
Pointing to the Bush administration’s failed efforts to pass an immigration reform bill in 2007, Chambliss said A comprehensive overhaul of the immigration system – including dealing with those living in the U.S. illegally – was “not practical” until the country’s borders are sealed.
“Until you seal the border, trying to have an overall package on immigration just simply can’t be done,” Chambliss told Crowley.
Sen. Robert Menendez, D-New Jersey, appearing with Chambliss Sunday, called immigration an issue that involved the country’s security and economic interests. Pointing to the recently passed law in Arizona, Menendez also said comprehensive immigration reform was necessary to protect the civil rights of those in the country legally. Menendez said the financial regulatory reform bill will take priority before an immigration or an energy bill.
The new Arizona law also prompted Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, to say last week that he will make passing a comprehensive immigration bill a priority once the Senate completes its work on a Wall Street reform bill.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, reacted to Reid’s move by announcing that he is withdrawing his support and involvement in efforts to craft an energy bill intended to win bipartisan support in the Senate. Graham, the Republican linchpin in both the energy and immigration negotiations with Senate Democrats, called the Democrats’ decision to prioritize immigration “nothing more than a cynical political ploy.” Democrats, for their part, have privately charged that Graham is trying to put the brakes on an immigration bill in order to protect his longtime friend Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona. A spokesman for Graham called that charge “nonsense.”
McCain is up for re-election and facing former Rep. J.D. Hayworth, a GOP primary opponent who has made his tough stance on border security and immigration one of his signature issues. Reid also is up for re-election and trailing likely GOP opponents in the polls. Shepherding a comprehensive immigration reform bill through the Senate would likely help Reid in Nevada, a state with a growing demographic of Hispanic voters. Given the Arizona’s new immigration law, consideration of a comprehensive federal immigration law prior to November’s election could put McCain in a difficult position in Arizona, which also has a growing number of Hispanic voters.