March 11, 2009

Public Lands Bill Defeated in House

By Kate Phillips
New York Times

For now, the mega-public lands bill that would have greatly expanded public wilderness areas, parks and miles and miles of public trails, is stalled. House Republicans managed to maintain enough opposition to the omnibus measure to defeat it earlier today in a vote requiring two-thirds of the House members, by 282-144.

House Democratic leaders had brought the bill to the floor under suspension of the rules, as a way to keep the opposition from altering the legislation through amendments. But getting two-thirds remained dicey. Democrats tried to persuade Republicans (and conservative Democrats) that the bills were gun-friendly by the insertion of an amendment that would have prohibited any effort to close lands in the omnibus to hunting and fishing, but many Republicans still believed the legislation did not include enough gun rights protections.

Three Democrats voted no; 34 Republicans voted with Democrats; and six did not vote. It fell two votes short of passage.

Beyond guns, the House Republican leadership had complained all along that the total size of the bill was extraordinary, and would cost billions of dollars. It also opposed the legislation on the grounds that many pieces of the omnibus, totaling more than 150 bills that would have created new national parks, expanded the boundaries of existing ones, created monuments or “heritage areas” and nationalized trails, had never been thoroughly examined in the House.

The Senate had already passed the bill, S. 22, after Senator Harry Reid, the majority leader, scheduled votes on a Sunday in early January for consideration of the omnibus bill.

Republicans also objected to the Democrats’ decision to pursue the vote through a suspension of the rules, contending that the procedure should be used mainly for renaming post offices or ceremonial items as opposed to something as massive as this bill. In addition, private land rights came into play as well as concerns that closing off so much land would affect energy resources.

Representative John Boehner, the minority leader in the House, said today: “The legislation Democrats attempted to force through the House today would have made matters even worse by blocking environmentally safe energy production, increasing gasoline and other energy costs, and costing American jobs we cannot afford to lose.”

A senior Democratic aide in the House said the best option under consideration would be to have the Senate shoehorn it onto another bill and ship it back. House Democratic leaders have not definitively ruled out a floor vote using a simpler rule, needing only a majority for passage, but that move would leave the measure wide open for amendments.

As for the ever-present gun lobby, an amendment by Democrat Jason Altmire, Democrat of Pennsylvania, was meant to assuage those concerned about hunting and fishing rights. And Democrats’ pointed to the N.R.A.’s satisfaction with that amendment. But Gun Owners of America sent out a letter this week objecting to the overall omnibus on many grounds, and urged House members to vote against it.