The U.S. House rejected Sen. Larry Craig's efforts to lift a moratorium on low-cost sales of public lands to mining companies.
On a 277-147 vote Friday, the House refused to go along with the appropriations bill for the U.S. Department of Interior, which includes an amendment Craig added to lift the moratorium. It sent the bill back to a House-Senate conference committee with specific instructions to reinstate the moratorium.
More than 200 so-called "patent" applications are on hold because of the moratorium.
Craig, R-Idaho, wants to let the patents through. Then, new claims would fall under new rules. Among other changes, the companies would be required to pay fair-market value for the surface land, and the land would revert back to public ownership when mining ended.
The patent process allows mining companies basically to buy land they've claimed at a cost of $5 per acre or less.
The process was established as part of a mining law enacted in 1872.
Craig was still optimistic Friday.
"These things aren't over until they're over," said Craig spokesman George Clarke. "This has happened before. But Sen. Craig's bill received strong support on the Senate side. We'll just have to wait and pursue it in conference."
Craig wants the moratorium lifted because he believes his new rules resolve the system's problems. Plus, his staffers said, Craig believes the government is violating the property rights of companies whose claims are on hold.
Jim Lyon of the Mineral Policy Center, a non-profit group that pushes for mining law reform, said the House has voted three times against lifting the moratorium. "You just don't get that clear a message three times in this business," he said. "The House is speaking very boldly and very clearly about the fact that they want these mining give-aways to end."
Lyon noted that Congress is cutting many programs in an effort to balance the budget, and termed the mining patent program "corporate welfare."