Last night, months of hard, bipartisan work and compromise to put together a public lands package fell to—we believe temporary—defeat thanks to Utah Senator Mike Lee. It was a pretty fascinating scene, and there were honestly quite a few aspects worth feeling upbeat about.
First, what happened...
As we’ve shared with you all over the past few weeks, there have been months of ongoing negotiations between Democrats and Republicans on the House Natural Resources Committee and Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee aimed at moving a package of public lands bills that have made significant progress over the course of this Congress. The “four corners,” meaning the top Republican and the top Democrat on each of those two committees, had successfully negotiated a package with bipartisan support, everyone giving a little and taking a little, and we strongly commend the work of Sen. Murkowski, Sen. Cantwell, Rep. Bishop, and Rep. Grijalva, as well as their staffs, for getting things as far as they did.
This public lands package included lots of bills we’ve worked on over the last year, including the Land and Water Conservation Fund, Oregon Wildlands, Emery County Public Lands Initiative, Organ Mountains, Methow Valley Mineral Withdrawal, Yellowstone Gateway, and the Mountains to Sound Greenway.
The big question all along was what the “vehicle” was going to be to get this across the finish. Because of the way Congress operates these days, typically a package like this would be negotiated and then attached to some larger piece of legislation (the vehicle). Because of conflict around the president’s demands for border wall funding, Congress decided—at least as of last night—to pass a “continuing resolution,” meaning a bill to maintain current funding, rather than an appropriations bill, which would more specifically adjust funding levels. Since there is typically a strong desire to pass CRs “clean,” meaning without extraneous policy provisions, we lost the vehicle to move the lands package.
Nevertheless, Senate leadership let the lands package come to the floor, but because of the arcana of Senate rules, there had to be unanimous consent to allow an up or down vote on the package, and that’s where our buddy Sen. Lee stepped in. As we’ve shared in the past, Sen. Lee pretty much hates the existence of public lands, and he launched into an impassioned diatribe against them on the Senate floor last night.
Where it got interesting was seeing the forceful response of Sen. Lee’s, mostly Republican, colleagues last night. Sen. Murkowski, Sen. Daines, Sen. Gardner, and Sen. Cantwell all spoke strongly about the importance of negotiation, the hard work of staff, and the benefits of outdoor recreation on public lands. We work hard to make sure that public lands protections are a bipartisan priority, and it was good validation to see solid bipartisan efforts. We disagree with folks like Sen. Murkowski on an awful lot with regard to public lands management, but it’s important to recognize that there is a categorical difference between being a tough negotiator, as she is, and being a bomb thrower like Sen. Lee, who believes that he should single-handedly be able to thwart any effort at compromise. Sen. Lee also threw his Utah colleagues under the bus hard last night, including Sen. Hatch, who worked exceptionally hard to find bipartisan compromise around his Emery County bill, and Rep. Bishop, the chair of HNR, who was a principal in the development of the package.
The entire process of developing this package has been an interesting one, and in a lot of ways, it’s very far from the School House Rock version of “how a bill becomes a law” that most of us have in our heads. It is truly a positive sign, though, that, in contrast to a lot of matters under consideration in Congress these days, there is an appetite to find a bipartisan way forward.
While there might be a few final cards to play in the next 24 hours, it’s important to acknowledge that Sen. Cantwell and Sen. Murkowski shared on the floor last night that there is a bipartisan commitment from leadership to move this package in the first few weeks of the new Congress. So we aren’t done yet. Our community should feel a lot of ownership over how far we’ve brought these bills, and we are going to get this done in January.
Here are a few highlights of what Sen. Lee denied us last night, and what we’ll be fighting for in the new year:
Permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund
The Emery County Public Lands Management Act
Methow Headwaters Mineral Withdrawal
The Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act
The Mountains to Sound Greenway National Heritage Area Act
Cerros del Norte Wilderness
Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks
Every Kid Outdoors
21st Century Service Corps Act
The California Desert Protection and Recreation Act
Numerous sportsmen’s provisions
Have a great holiday, and feel positive that we’ll get this done in the new Congress.
And, if you live in Colorado, Washington, Alaska, Montana, or your member was on a key committee, drop them a line to thank them for their hard work. And if you live in Utah and want to drop Mike Lee a line, it might be good for him to hear from you, too.