WASHINGTON – In an early showdown for the new Congress, senators are considering setting aside more than 2 million acres in nine states as wilderness.
The largest expansion of wilderness protection in 25 years would include California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range, Oregon’s Mount Hood, Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado and parts of the Jefferson National Forest in Virginia.
The bill, a holdover from last year, has bipartisan support. Yet it is causing friction that threatens to spoil pledges by Senate leaders to work cooperatively as a new administration takes office.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., has pledged to filibuster. He says the spending in the bill is excessive — nearly $4 billion over five years — and that the measure calls for removing millions of acres of federal property from oil and gas development.
Coburn’s objections scuttled the bill last year and have riled Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. Reid sought to force a rare Sunday vote in an apparent effort to punish Coburn and antagonize his GOP colleagues. The scheduled session would try to limit GOP stalling tactics and move the bill forward.
Reid “runs the Senate like a kindergarten. If we don’t follow his instructions, he keeps the whole class after school,” said Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., one of several Republicans who might skip the Sunday session, said, “I’m puzzled that Senator Reid would start the year off with a Sunday vote.” If he did show up, Alexander said he probably would vote against moving ahead with the bill, to protest the GOP’s inability to make changes in the legislation.
A spokeswoman for Reid, Regan Lachapelle, denied that he was punishing anyone, but merely following through on a pledge to move as quickly as possible to consider a bill left over from last year. At least three senators canceled plans to travel with Vice President-elect Joe Biden to Asia because of the expected vote on the lands bill.
“This is an important piece of legislation to protect wilderness areas and our oceans, and Senator Reid has been working to pass this package of bipartisan legislation,” Lachapelle said.
Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said the bill represents years of work by lawmakers from many states and both parties. The legislation combines about 160 bills covering nearly every state.
Besides new wilderness designations — the highest level of government protection for public lands — the bill would designate the childhood home of former President Bill Clinton in Hope, Ark., as a national historic site and expand protections for dozens of national parks, rivers and water resources.
“It will be a great day for all Americans who appreciate our public lands when this bipartisan bill becomes law,” Bingaman said. “I can’t think of a single bill that has ever done more to ensure their enjoyment of — and access to — wilderness areas, historic sites, national parks, forests, trails and wild and scenic rivers.”
Coburn sharply disputed that.
“The decision by Senate leaders to kick off the new Congress with an earmark-laden omnibus lands bill makes a mockery of voters’ hopes for change,” he said in a statement. “This package represents some of the worst aspects of congressional incompetence and parochialism.”
For example, Coburn said, the bill includes $3 million for a “road to nowhere” through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska; $460 million for a water project designed to save 500 salmon in California; and $3.5 million to help celebrate the 450th birthday of St. Augustine, Fla., in 2015.
Environmental groups also oppose the Alaska road. The rest of the bill, they say, would be a huge accomplishment for Congress.
“In this world of uncertainty, it will be nice to know more of our special wild places will stay as they are,” said Susan Whitmore of the Campaign for America’s Wilderness, an advocacy group.
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