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Conservation bill clears one Senate hurdle, but more remain

Some Gulf Coast senators and other Republicans may seek amendments to the bill

Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., speaks with a staffer last week.
Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., speaks with a staffer last week. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

An outdoor bill championed by Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., cleared a procedural hurdle Monday even as opponents in his own party say they have not yet decided if they can support the measure. 

The Senate voted 80-17 to invoke cloture, thus limiting debate, on a motion by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to take up a House-passed tax bill that senators intend to use as the vehicle to pass the Gardner bill. The bill would fully and permanently fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund as well as address the National Park Service’s maintenance backlog.

The bill has broad bipartisan support. Democrats are among 58 cosponsors and a House companion measure is sponsored by Democrats. Still, a number of Republicans, especially from oil states, are pushing back over revenue sharing and land acquisition provisions. 

Some of those Republicans who voted for cloture Monday said they’d be pushing for changes to the measure in the coming days.  

The bill would fully and permanently fund the LWCF at $900 million a year, the full amount Congress intended when it created the program in 1964.  

The LWCF, which is funded in part by money from private sector offshore oil and gas profits, helps pay for the maintenance of parks and other outdoor amenities and to make them available to the public. That program is also the federal government’s primary fund for acquiring new land, a contentious issue for some Republicans such as Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, who voted against cloture.

The bill would also allow $9.5 billion to help clear the Interior Department’s nearly $20 billion maintenance backlog, most of it at the National Park Service.

“There are not many issues that bring Republicans and Democrats together, but something that does that is protecting our public lands,” Steve Daines, R-Mont., a cosponsor of the bill said, pointing out the program has only drawn the full $900 million twice since 1965.

The bill’s passage could help Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s chances of holding on to a GOP majority in that chamber by offering Gardner and Daines an opportunity to win over moderate voters who support investments in public lands. 

[A lot riding on conservation bill vote for Gardner, Daines]

As early as Tuesday, the Senate will likely begin debate on Gardner’s bill as a substitute amendment to the House shell bill. Under the Constitution, measures affecting revenue must originate in the House, so the Senate will often pick up a House measure and replace the text.

Final passage of the bill hinges on Democrats’ continued support and on whether Republicans with reservations can be worn over.

Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., said he would vote for cloture, but is undecided on voting for the passage of the bill if it doesn’t include an amendment protecting Florida’s coasts from offshore drilling. 

Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., said he would vote against final passage of the bill if it doesn’t include his amendment that would increase the amount of offshore revenue Gulf Coast states receive to address coastal resiliency and restoration efforts.

Gulf protections

“Sea level rise and land loss threaten coastal ecosystems,” Cassidy said last week. “My proposal ensures Gulf and coastal areas receive their fair share of resources to address unique environmental challenges.”

And Sen. Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., who is also Appropriations chairman, said he was undecided on whether he would vote for final passage of the bill if Cassidy’s amendment isn’t included.

Speaking on the Senate floor before the vote, Sen. Michael B. Enzi, R-Wyo., described the bill as “gimmick spending” that would balloon the federal deficit on the heels of the massive coronavirus relief spending.

Enzi said he would attempt to add an amendment to the bill to make sure it can be paid for. His amendment would charge foreigners visiting the U.S. to pay an extra $16-$20 in visa fees. He said that increased visitation of foreigners to U.S. parks is great, but it contributes to maintenance costs and that “it’s only fair” to ask those guests to contribute toward their preservation.

“It has been ignored so far in this process,” Enzi said of his amendment. 

Bill proponents want the bill to be moved through a closed amendment process, meaning no changes would be made before a final vote. They have cast it as an important recreation and job-creation tool to get people back on their feet after the damage to the economy and wide-spread job losses because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“It is the legislation that we need to pass, even in this unbelievable time of so many other critical issues,” Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said on the Senate floor shortly before the debate-limiting vote. “I believe now, more than ever, our local parks in our urban green space can give solace to Americans who need refuge from all of the issues we’re dealing with.”

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said the bill presented a “historic” opportunity to “get our national parks back on track.”

Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.

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