Thursday, December 02, 2010

Colleagues enlist Reid's help with last-ditch push for massive water, lands, wildlife package

Paul Quinlan, E&E reporter
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told Senate colleagues this week he will move forward with an eleventh-hour effort to pass a massive package of waterways, public lands and wildlife bills during the lame-duck session, sources say, in what could be a rare environmental victory for a Congress marked by major defeats on climate change and oil spill legislation.
The Nevada Democrat offered his assurances Monday night after a group of about 10 Senate Democrats, including key committee leaders Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), met with him in a room off the Senate floor to ask him to intensify his efforts to push a bill through the heavily divided Senate, which already faces a packed agenda for the waning days of this Congress, the sources said.
"They went to the leader to say, 'We want you to pay attention to this more than you have,'" said an environmental lobbyist closely involved in the effort. Reid's office did not respond to a request for comment last night.
By all accounts, Reid was receptive and the meeting was a success. Afterward, Reid's staff reached out to the offices of senators involved to ask for a draft of the proposed legislation, which was expected to be delivered to the leader's office either last night or today.
The senators and environmentalists pushing for the package are especially hopeful because of the broad, bipartisan support for the waterways legislation that would be included. Taken together, the bills could amount to the most significant change in water legislation since the 1987 amendments to the Clean Water Act.
Waterways bills slated to be included in the package aim to protect and restore the Chesapeake Bay, Lake Tahoe, San Francisco Bay, the Columbia River, Puget Sound, the Great Lakes, the Gulf of Mexico and Long Island Sound, sources say. Most would authorize, but do not appropriate, money for U.S. EPA to establish new programs and program offices relating to each waterway, award grants and increase accountability. Another bill said to have a place in the package would reauthorize the National Estuary Program.
All passed the Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee in June with the full support of committee Democrats and Republicans led by Boxer and ranking member James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who are polar opposites politically. Senate Democrats say they hope those bills will help them win the 60 votes needed to move the larger bill through the chamber.
"I think we have a good chance because they are bipartisan bills," Boxer said yesterday of the overall effort.
Senators invited to the meeting with Reid on Monday night included not only Environment and Public Works Committee members but also senators deemed to have a special interest in one or more of the waterways bills -- for example, those who face re-election in 2012 in states where waterway restoration and protection polls well.
Likely to be combined with the waterways bills are measures that Bingaman's Energy and Natural Resources Committee passed individually or in batches during this Congress that aim to protect more than 2 million acres in 13 states; create new national parks, monuments, wilderness areas and wildlife sanctuaries; protect migratory birds and rare cats; and combat invasive species.
"There's been a lot of hard work the last two years, and it would be disappointing, to say the least, if a lot of these targeted bills died because the Senate couldn't find the time to move them forward," Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources National Parks Subcommittee, said yesterday.
Although many Republicans support individual waterways bills, several remain noncommittal or outright opposed to the idea of rolling their favored bill up with other water, lands and wildlife bills into a single, sweeping package.
"I think the way to go about moving forward on these bills is to probably do them individually," Matt Dempsey, spokesman for the Republican minority on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said Monday.
Environmentalists counter that there is no other way. Dozens of groups have lobbied Senate leadership aggressively on behalf of such a sweeping bill, writing letters, dispatching lobbyists to the Hill to buttonhole senators in hallways and even establishing an e-mail distribution list of about 200 that can share news on who's in, who's out, who's on the fence and why.
"Many of these bills have little or no opposition, strong local support and bipartisan sponsorship in Congress," said a Nov. 16 letter to Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) that was signed by the heads of 10 major environmental groups, including Environment America, Environmental Defense Fund, the National Audubon Society and National Wildlife Federation.
Time runs very short and even strong supporters -- such as Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and George Voinovich (R-Ohio) -- admit the odds of success remain slim. Adding to the challenge, many of the bills have not received committee approval in the House.
The likely strategy, say lobbyists, will be to try to find a two-day window during the lame duck between debates over agenda-toppers like taxes and ways to continue funding the federal government. The House would then send over a privileged motion to the Senate, which could then take up the package, vote on it, and send it back to the House for a final, take-it-or-leave-it vote.
Proponents are touting the environmental and -- more important politically -- economic benefits of the proposed legislation. Jeff Skelding, director of the Great Lakes campaign for the National Wildlife Federation, cites a 2007 Brookings Institution report that concluded that investment in Great Lakes restoration would have an economic "multiplier" effect. "The spending of $1 by a fiscal authority typically results in additional spending in a region of between 1.5 and 2.5 times the original spending," the report said.
"The attacks on these bills don't recognize the need," Skelding said. "And it's not just environmental need -- it's an economic need."

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