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Missing the Forest for the Trees

Democratic Prez Contenders Skip Vote on Forest Initiative

As deadly forest fires raged through Southern California last week, all three Democratic Senators running for president in 2004 missed the vote on passage of the so-called Healthy Forest Initiative, sparing them from having to choose between environmental interest groups and Golden State primary voters.

The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), had been placed on a fast track through the Senate in the wake of the fires’ devastation. President Bush has indicated he will sign the measure, which contains minor adjustments to a similar House bill, once it reaches his desk.

Spokesmen for each of the three Senators blamed the demands of the presidential hustings for the missed votes, though records of the Senate’s floor proceedings indicate that all three candidates had participated in other legislative activities on Oct. 30, the day the forest initiative came to the floor.

For example, though he was in Iowa on the day of the vote, Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) used a Senate procedure known as a “vote explanation” to indicate that he would have voted for a separate measure being considered on the floor that day, dealing with climate change.

Edwards spokesman Michael Briggs said the Senator would have voted against the forest measure, had he been in Washington. Aides to Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) said the same.

Asked why Edwards did not provide a vote explanation for the forest bill, Briggs said, “We’ve been doing that on some bills, but not on everything.”

Bush proposed the Healthy Forest Initiative last summer to coincide with what is traditionally wildfire season in the West. The measure would authorize agencies such as the Forest Service to take action to clear underbrush and other “fuel” from forests that would be prone to wildfire.

The original legislation drew protests from environmental groups and many Democrats, who argued that the measure licensed lumber companies to cut significantly into old-growth forests for profit.

The Feinstein measure, which passed the Senate by a vote of 80-14, had been altered to address some of the environmental concerns that had been expressed, but it still did not meet with the approval of most of the interest groups.

While environmental organizations and some Democrats argued that the legislation did not deal with circumstances like those impacting California, Feinstein explicitly linked the bill to the unfolding catastrophe back home.

“I wish — I truly do, from the bottom of my heart that the California wildfires would be quickly extinguished and controlled. We need to do everything possible in this regard,” Feinstein said. “But we also need to look to the future and try to ensure that the tragedy that has befallen my state is not repeated again.”

The Senate last week earmarked $500 million in emergency aid to California for the aftermath of the fires. But the fate of Bush’s forest initiative had been somewhat in question before the fires’ outbreak in California, with no clear track to the floor.

It had also, until that point, faced derision from the Democratic candidates for president, who described it as another in a series of White House proposals whose friendly sounding names belied the destructive potential they held for the environment.

Lieberman spokeswoman Casey Aden-Wansbury said the lawmaker was forced to leave the Senate at 4 p.m. the day of the vote to appear at a campaign event in Buffalo.

Aden-Wansbury noted that Lieberman had remained in Washington long enough that day to vote on an amendment (which passed) that was intended to strengthen protections for old-growth forests. But, she added, “We still believe the Senator would have likely voted against ‘Healthy Forests.’”

Likewise, Kerry spokesman Tony Wyche said the Massachusetts Senator would have voted against the forest bill, had he been in Washington. A vote explanation has been entered in the Congressional Record, Wyche said.

The California presidential primary takes place on March 2, 2004.

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