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Senate Pyromaniacs
Wall Street Journal Online 11/13/03

Terrible as it sounds, we're beginning to wonder if someone shouldn't spark another hundred-thousand-acre wildfire. That seems to be the only thing that will force Senate Democrats to take action on the rotting forests that cause the West's annual infernos.

Last month the primetime pictures of San Diego in flames got so politically hot that liberals dropped their filibuster threats and finally let Healthy Forests legislation through the Senate. The House, which passed its version in May, hoped to reconcile the bills quickly and get something to President Bush this year.

Instead, Healthy Forests sits dead as that California timber. The story of its derailment is one of Senate Democrats playing a double game -- with constituents who favor action on the fires on the one hand, and extreme green groups who pay election bills on the other. While such Beltway games aren't new, in this case they can do real-world damage.

Fires have been growing as a political issue since the country began to realize that blazes aren't acts of God but the result of bad forest policy. Environmental extremists for years used political and legal challenges to prevent forest cleanup so that today one in three forest acres is dead or dying. That deadwood provided the fuel for fires that from 2000 to 2002 destroyed 19 million acres and 4,000 buildings, costing $3.4 billion to suppress.

The problem is so obvious that officials now foretell disaster with chilling accuracy. In the lead article in the fall issue of California Forests magazine, San Bernardino County Fire Marshal Peter Brierty wrote that, "Californians are facing the worst predictable disaster in state history. Our forests are tinderboxes of fire fuel waiting to be ignited." Within weeks, Mr. Brierty was battling conflagrations that killed 22 and burned down 3,600 homes.

In other words, everyone knows what needs to be done -- thinning and cleanup -- and voters are demanding legislation to do it. The problem for Democrats is that their base support includes environmentalists who refuse to compromise about anything, ever. So they've had to do a dance of legislation that lets them look like they want to pass Healthy Forests, while simultaneously blocking the bill from reaching the President's desk.

This was working until the California blazes. But once the Golden State began to burn, a number of Western Democrats (led by Oregon's Ron Wyden, who faces re-election next year) began to worry about political fallout and quickly crafted a "compromise" bill that passed with 80 Senate votes (including 30 Democrats).

Yet even as Mr. Wyden is telling Oregon voters he's saved them from "catastrophic fires," the Senate Democratic leadership has been refusing to grant unanimous consent to hold a House-Senate conference on the bill. Until it does, Healthy Forests is dead in the water.

The public explanation is that Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle wants Republicans to give Democrats a larger say in conference. This takes some nerve coming from the same folks who are filibustering a rainbow coalition of Bush judges. In any event, Mr. Daschle knows that House Republicans are going to insist on some of their own provisions. So the real game here may simply be to stop the conference from forming and kill the bill in the smoke of Senate procedure.

Mr. Daschle would have more credibility if he hadn't pulled this political smokeout before. Last year he won points with South Dakota voters by inserting a provision into a spending bill that allowed for forest cleanup in his own state. He then quietly squashed similar provisions for the rest of the country as a private little favor to the Sierra Club.

If Republicans wanted to be as cynical, they'd let Mr. Daschle kill the bill and blame him for it. By just about every expert calculation, fire season will be in full burn about a month before next year's Senate elections.


Matt Streit
Deputy Press Secretary
Resources Communications





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