U.S. House defeat of wilderness bill stuns supporters
by Charles Pope, The Oregonian March 11, 2009
WASHINGTON -- Supporters of popular but star-crossed wilderness legislation were assessing their options Wednesday after a bill that would toughen protections around Mount Hood and other public lands across Oregon and the nation was defeated in the House by two votes.
The bill, which attracted unanimous support from Oregon's five House members, earned a lopsided 282-144 vote but failed because it fell two votes short of the required two-thirds majority.
The setback was a bitter surprise for lawmakers and wilderness advocates who have been laboring for years to steer the bill through Congress.
"I am optimistic that we can continue to work together to finally pass the first Oregon wilderness expansion in 20 years into law," said Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., who wrote part of the Oregon provisions.
After the bill passed the Senate in January, backers predicted victory. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., one of the prime sponsors of the Oregon portions of the bill, said he would ask House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to bring the bill back for another vote soon.
Whether that occurs is unsettled.
The decision to seek two-thirds approval rather than a simple majority vote came from Democratic leaders who wanted to shield the bill from votes on potentially embarrassing amendments. Without amendments, the bill required a two-thirds majority.
Democrats were worried about a Republican amendment to allow people to carry concealed weapons in national parks. But because of Republican complaints, that provision was later added to the bill without a vote. The leadership, DeFazio said, "was petrified" of having a recorded vote on that amendment.
But since the provision has been added, "there's no reason not to bring the bill up" again for a simple majority vote, DeFazio said.
Supporters have called the bill the most significant public lands measure in a generation.
The sprawling legislation is 164 separate bills bundled together, designating more than 2 million acres of wilderness in nine states. It would create three national parks, more than 1,000 miles of wild and scenic rivers -- including about 90 miles in Oregon -- and three national conservation areas.
It also would enlarge the size of a dozen national parks and address water supply problems in California.
In Oregon, the bill would:
• Protect almost 127,000 acres around Mount Hood as wilderness and add almost 80 miles on nine free-flowing stretches of rivers to the wild and scenic river system.
• Designate 9.3 miles of rivers at the headwaters of the North Fork of the Elk River as wild and scenic and add 13,700 acres of new wilderness adjacent to the Grassy Knob Wilderness.
• Designate as wilderness almost 30,000 acres in an area 15 miles east of Bend. Establish a 23,000-acre wilderness area, to be known as the Soda Mountain Wilderness, in the Cascade Siskiyou National Monument's southern backcountry.
• Designate about 8,600 acres of U.S. Bureau of Land Management land overlooking a wild and scenic stretch of the John Day River as the Spring Basin Wilderness.
House leaders were worried that if the bill were allowed to pass by a simple majority, Republicans would offer amendments on such topics as gun control and abortion that would be used against candidates during 2010 campaigns.
Now, lawmakers face difficult choices for reviving a bill even though it has deep bipartisan support.
One option, as recommended by DeFazio, is to bring the bill back but allow amendments. That would allow it to pass with 218 votes, far fewer than the 282 it received Wednesday. The danger, however, is that Democrats -- and especially vulnerable Democrats -- would be forced to vote on more controversial amendments.
The other option would be to change the bill slightly and bring it back for a vote requiring a two-thirds margin to pass.
But as time elapses, the worries multiply.
"Any delay on protecting wilderness is risky," said Sean Stevens, spokesman for Oregon Wild, a conservation group that has vigorously supported the bill.
Senate supporters were not pleased either. Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat, was a key architect of the Oregon provisions in the bill and played a major role guiding it through the Senate.
"It would seem one answer would be for House Democrats to man up and agree to take votes on tough subjects," said Josh Kardon, Wyden's chief of staff.
"Every Democrat in the Senate just took a host of
difficult votes on amendments designed to embarrass or
entrap them," Kardon said, referring to votes earlier this
week on congressional pay raises.
-- Charles Pope; firstname.lastname@example.org