Corrected, 12:38 p.m. | The Senate is expected to debate into next week bipartisan legislation that would allow massive spending on the nation’s public lands and help two GOP senators boost their moderate credentials in tight reelection races.
Senators voted 79-18 on Wednesday to proceed to a legislative vehicle for the bill. A cloture vote could come as soon as 1 a.m. Friday. The vehicle is a tax bill that was passed in the House in April 2019.
Because the addition of the outdoor bill would constitute substantial changes to the tax measure, it would have to be voted on by the House again.
Sponsored by Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., and cosponsored by Sens. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., Steve Daines, R-Mont., and 57 other senators, the bill would fully and permanently fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund and address the National Park Service's maintenance backlog.
“We have a chance to lead this week,” Gardner said on the Senate floor shortly before the vote.
He rejected criticism by some conservative groups and some GOP lawmakers that the bill is a “federal land grab” as well as concerns surrounding additional government spending following the huge amounts spent on coronavirus relief.
“This is money that is paid for … not by the taxpayers,” Gardner said. “This is paid for by offshore revenue. It’s an opportunity to protect our land without costing the taxpayer money.”
According to the Congressional Budget Office, the legislation would add $17.3 billion to the federal deficit over the next decade.
Gardner’s office could not be immediately reached for comment about the CBO report released Wednesday.
The bill would fund the LWCF at $900 million a year, the full amount Congress intended when it created the program more than five decades ago.
The LWCF, which is funded in part by money from private sector offshore oil and gas revenues, helps states and communities purchase and develop outdoor recreation facilities for public use. It also helps the federal government pay to acquire land.
“It’s fitting that the legislation before us comes with support of such a broad bipartisan coalition because our national parks, forests and other public lands are treasured in every state of our union,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said on the floor Wednesday.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., said he would support the measure “but with a heavy and frustrated heart.”
He said the bill fails to meet the needs of coastal communities and doesn’t give them a fair share of offshore oil revenue.
Whitehouse said he’d introduce an amendment that would separately provide coastal communities a share of federal revenue from offshore wind and renewable energy development to support coastal development.
He backed Louisiana Republican Bill Cassidy, who has similar concerns over the offshore revenue sharing.
“Are we listening to Cassidy?” Whitehouse said.
Cassidy on Tuesday said he planned to introduce an amendment that would help increase the offshore oil and gas revenue that goes to coastal states for the development and preservation of coastlines.
Those amendments, including one by Sen. Michael B. Enzi, R-Wyo., that would charge foreigners entering the U.S. extra in visa fees to help pay for the maintenance of national parks, appear less likely to be considered after McConnell filled an amendment tree Wednesday. Filling the amendment tree means all opportunities for changes to the bill have been filled. The amendments McConnell filed don’t include those of Enzi, Whitehouse or Cassidy.
Still, an aide for Cassidy told CQ Roll Call the lawmaker plans to offer his amendment and is trying to win over enough senators to coax McConnell to allow a vote.
“We’re going to spend billions, but we’re going to spend billions in the wrong way, repairing damage on the coast that could have been prevented if we’d spent millions now,” Cassidy said in a news release Wednesday evening. “If we don’t enhance resiliency, we’re going to spend billions when the hurricane hits.”
While more than 850 conservation groups support the legislation, the bill has some high profile GOP opponents, including in the House, where the top Republican on the Natural Resources Committee, Rob Bishop, R-Utah, described it as a “perfect example of Washington playing political games.”
“At a time when America is putting a record amount of debt on the backs of future generations to cope with COVID-19, now is not the time for reckless spending or new mandatory programs that have nothing to do with the pandemic or stimulating growth,” Bishop said in a statement Tuesday. “Congress is pulling the wool over taxpayers’ eyes with S 3422, and any responsible member of the Senate would vote to oppose it.”
Dozens of conservative groups have also voiced their opposition. On Monday, leaders of Club for Growth, Competitive Enterprise Institute, Americans for Limited Government and Family Research Council wrote a letter opposing the legislation and suggesting that the LWCF sunset in five years.
“The vast extent of the federal estate has severe negative environmental and economic consequences,” the groups wrote on Monday. “As evidenced by the need for a $9.5 billion program to begin catching up with deferred maintenance, the federal government owns much more land than it can adequately manage and protect.”
Correction: This report was revised to accurately reflect comments by Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., who said, "This is money that is paid for … not by the taxpayers."