Locked in disagreement over the future of America’s natural resources, the House of Representatives rejected key parts of an Interior Department spending bill that has stymied Congress for months.
The 3-month-long Interior budget fight is a mirror of the political woes that have kept Congress from passing 10 of 13 federal spending bills.
As in other spending fights, congressional leaders have used the $12.1 billion Interior appropriation to make an array of changes in existing laws and policies. And as before, the sweep of the changes has sparked a rebellion by Republican moderates.
Focusing on sections that would increase logging in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest and allow mining companies to buy the mineral rights to federal lands at below-market prices, 49 Republicans joined House Democrats to reject the bill Wednesday.
By a 220-205 vote, the House sent the bill back to a House-Senate conference committee for a rewrite, insisting that its final version must include a tough moratorium on more sales of mineral rights, and must not increase logging in the Alaskan rain forest.
The Interior battle has been nasty and time-consuming, and it is probably moot. President Clinton has promised to veto the bill if it passes Congress in anything like its present form.
Wednesday’s vote left untouched several provisions the administration opposes, including the cancellation of some wildlife-protection programs and cuts in federal funding for Indian tribes.
Backers of the bill say it would restore a sensible balance between wildlife protection and the rights of landowners, and bring much-needed income into the federal treasury.
Alaska Republican Don Young, chairman of the House Resources Committee, said the bill would create new jobs in logging and mining, and accused its opponents of “following the flag of those environmental groups that don’t want America working.”
But opponents in both parties labeled the latest version “a sham” that would sell or give away too many valuable public resources.
“It’s a continuing giveaway of our natural resources,” said New Yorker Sherwood Boehlert, leader of the pro-environment Republicans.
Lesser controversies boiled around the sections that would sharply cut spending on social programs for Native American tribes, and others that would ban taxpayer support for art works that are “patently offensive” or “denigrate religious objects or religious beliefs.”