Thursday, March 19, 2009

Senate proceeds to placeholder bill for omnibus public lands bill

The Senate yesterday approved the first step of a Democratic plan designed to get the omnibus public lands, water and natural resources bill to the White House.

By a 73-21 vote, the Senate approved a cloture motion allowing it to proceed to a placeholder bill for S. 22 (pdf), the collection of more than 160 lands and water bills it first passed in January.

Senate leaders now plan to strip the contents of H.R. 146 (pdf), a proposal to protect Revolutionary War battlefields, and replace it with the omnibus lands bill in an attempt to make it palatable to the House. A cloture motion to cut off debate is likely before moving to final passage later this week.

The plan demonstrates the lengths lawmakers are going to in order to avoid another lengthy delay in the Senate or a potentially difficult vote on GOP amendments in the House.

The Senate first passed the omnibus in January, 74-21. But last week, the House fell two votes shy of passing the bill under suspension of the rules, a maneuver that shields legislation from amendment or a motion to recommit but requires a two-thirds majority for passage.

Because H.R. 146 has already passed the House, the House Rules Committee could approve a closed rule that would block a motion to recommit, the House parliamentarian said last week. That would eliminate the GOP's best procedural chance to stymie the bill. House Democrats could also choose to bring up the bill under suspension again, if they believe they can reach the two-thirds threshold.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who held many of the bills in the omnibus for months over the last year, said he will once again attempt to block the measure as the Democratic leadership prevents attempts to amend it. "I plan on using every tool, every tool, that I can to delay and obstruct this piece of legislation, because it's not in the best interest, long-term interest of our country," Coburn said prior to yesterday's vote.

After the vote, Coburn said he will see whether Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) will allow him to offer amendments. Coburn declined to say which amendments he would want, adding, "Well I'd love to offer a hundred, but that's not what I'm asking."

A preliminary discussion on the floor went nowhere. "He said, 'I'm too tired to deal with it,'" Coburn said.

But Coburn said it is not a personal dispute with Reid. "He's got a tough job, he's got to run the floor and I understand his position and I'd probably be taking his same position -- but I'm not taking his same position."

A bill too far? critics ask

The omnibus would designate more than 2 million acres of wilderness in nine states and would establish three new national park units, a new national monument, three new national conservation areas, more than 1,000 miles of national wild and scenic rivers and four new national trails. It would enlarge the boundaries of more than a dozen existing national park units and establish 10 new national heritage areas.

It would also authorize numerous land exchanges and conveyances to help local Western communities address water resource and supply issues, and includes provisions to improve land management.

"This is collectively one of the most significant conservation measures considered by this body in the past decade," Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), whose committee put the omnibus together, said on the floor yesterday.

The revised omnibus bill will also include language from Rep. Jason Altmire (D-Pa.) meant to ensure that the omnibus would not close off lands that are already open to hunting and fishing.

But Coburn and House Republicans say the bill goes too far. Coburn noted that several provisions in the omnibus would preclude the opportunity for energy development on public lands, including one bill that would block the development of natural gas and oil in Wyoming.

"We're setting a precedent for a very weak foundation for our future energy needs," Coburn said.

Senate Energy Committee ranking member Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who supports the omnibus, noted that federal agencies have certified that none of the wilderness designations will negatively impact on the availability of oil or gas because the land was being managed for conservation purposes already. She said the country can maximize domestic energy development while protecting natural resources.

"I do not believe that this is an either-or situation," she said, adding that the Wyoming provision has the strong backing of the state's two Republican senators.

As for cost concerns, she said the bill does authorize some expenditure of funds, but each is dependent on future appropriations and the oversight that comes with the committee process.

While saying the omnibus process is not her "preferred method" for passing legislation, she urged senators to support it. "Overall this package will improve the nation's management of public lands and parks and will be a long-term benefit," Murkowski said.

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