March 18, 2009

Senate poised to move quickly on Omnibus

Procedural maneuver designed to nullify House vote

By Noelle Straub and Eric Bontrager
Environment & Energy Daily

The Senate today will vote on six amendments to the public lands, water and natural resources omnibus bill and may vote on the final version as soon as tonight.

Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) yesterday reached an agreement to allow Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) votes on the amendments in return for dropping his objections to the bill. The deal allows for 60 minutes of debate on each of Coburn's amendments and requires 60 votes for final passage. The Senate first passed the omnibus bill in January, 74-21, and a cloture vote Monday was approved, 73-21.

During floor debate yesterday, Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) described Coburn's amendments as largely minor, noncontroversial measures intended as assurances against unintended consequences of the omnibus. He encouraged Republicans to vote for them, saying they "simply improve the bill."

"Why would we want to preserve the right to use eminent domain if we don't have any intention to use it?" - Jon Kyl (R-AZ)

He noted one of the Coburn amendments would prohibit the use of eminent domain to acquire any of the millions of acres that would be protected under the omnibus. Supporters of the package have repeatedly refuted Coburn's claims that eminent domain would be used for any of the lands in the omnibus. "If it is true ... that none of this land needs to be acquired by eminent domain, there is no harm in including the language" of the amendment, Kyl said. "Why would we want to preserve the right to use eminent domain if we don't have any intention to use it?"

Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), who has a measure in the omnibus that would designate more than 517,000 acres as wilderness in the Owyhee-Bruneau Canyonlands of southwestern Idaho, said he understood the concerns of Coburn and some other members have but does not share their fears that the package represent "a haphazard attempt to extend the reach of the federal government."

"This is a well thought through management approach," Crapo said. "I don't believe there is a single piece of legislation in this bill that does not have the support of the senator of the state those lands are in."

Crapo said he hopes the Senate will move "expeditiously" on the amendments so that it can pass the omnibus and send it over the House.

Two of Coburn's amendments would strike all provisions that could restrict renewable energy development on public lands and sections that Coburn deems frivolous, such as the $3.5 million to celebrate the 450th Anniversary of St. Augustine, Fla., in 2015. Noting the National Park Service's $9 billion maintenance backlog, one amendment would bar new construction until all current park sites are certified as fully operational, ensuring full access by the public, and posing no health or safety threat.

Other amendments would require an annual report detailing the total size and cost of federal property, prohibit the use of eminent domain for any provision authorized in the bill, and clarify the bill to protect park visitors and scientists from criminal penalties for taking stones that may contain fossils.

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. Senate leaders then devised a strategy to use a bill that had already passed the House -- H.R. 146, a proposal to protect Revolutionary War battlefields -- and strip its contents, replacing it with the omnibus lands bill. Because H.R. 146 has already passed the House, the House Rules Committee can approve a closed rule that would block a motion to recommit, eliminating the GOP's best procedural chance to stymie the bill.

House Natural Resources Chairman Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) yesterday said he had not seen Coburn's amendments but doubted that any would jeopardize the omnibus's final passage in the House. He noted that because the House already passed H.R. 146, all it would need is a simple majority vote to concur with the Senate amendment.

Even if the Senate passes the omnibus this week, Rahall said the House would likely not take it up until next week.

Because the omnibus may only require a simple majority, Natural Resources Committee ranking member Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) admitted that the bill is all but assured to pass. While pleased that the Reid-Coburn agreement will allow some amendments on the Senate side, he reiterated that House Republicans have never had the same opportunity.

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.

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.