Two Republican senators who could use some moderate voters for tough reelection challenges are championing a major conservation bill set for a vote in the Senate this week.
The bill has plenty of bipartisan support. But members of the senators’ own party could block its passage.
The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, and one of 58 co-sponsors, Steve Daines of Montana, need to overcome resistance from Gulf Coast Republicans concerned about offshore revenue sharing and federal land acquisitions.
Gardner is in a tight race in a state that has a massive outdoor economy, with former Gov. John Hickenlooper seeking the nomination to challenge him with the support of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Daines is in a competitive race in Montana against Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat. CQ Roll Call includes both of them in its most recent list of the 10 most vulnerable senators. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the Colorado Senate race Tilt Democratic and the Montana contest Lean Republican.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell agreed to bring the bill for a vote and filed cloture on Thursday. The bill’s passage could help his chances of holding on to a GOP majority in that chamber by offering Gardner and Daines an opportunity to win over moderate voters who support investments in public lands.
The measure would fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund at $900 million per year, an amount the program has rarely drawn from the Treasury.
The LWCF, which is funded by money from private sector oil and gas profits on federal lands, helps pay for maintenance of parks, wildlife refuges and other outdoor amenities and make them available to the public.
Money from the fund also helps pay for federal land acquisitions, a sticking point for some lawmakers and groups such as the conservative Heritage Foundation and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, which argue the government shouldn’t be acquiring more land while falling behind on maintaining what it already has.
The bill would also address the National Park Service’s massive maintenance backlog that has grown as budget shortfalls forced the agency to delay repairs and maintenance of its facilities, including roads, buildings and utility systems.
Even with 59 co-sponsors including Gardner and Daines, Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., last week told conservation groups in a virtual seminar that it may be short of the 60-vote threshold often needed in the Senate.
“The 59 co-sponsors is indicative of the broad support in the Senate, and we expect this to be a strong bipartisan vote when it comes to the floor,” Sam Runyon, a spokeswoman for Manchin, told CQ Roll Call last week.
A Gardner campaign spokesman asserted that Democrats are predicting he’ll come up short on votes for the bill “to distract from the fact that Gardner accomplished something they failed to do for decades.” The issue is embraced by his campaign, which highlights on its website Gardner’s conservation efforts and describes him as a “champion” for Colorado’s public lands.
Fourty-one Democrats, including Manchin, are co-sponsors of the bill. And a bipartisan group of House lawmakers led by Joe Cunningham, a South Carolina Democrat, introduced a companion bill in that chamber last week.
The LWCF and national parks are priorities for lawmakers from both parties but have in the past become difficult to move when bundled with other priorities or over differences on how to pay for them.
“This has taken a lot of blood, sweat and tears from people over the decades,” Gardner said at the webinar organized last week by the conservation group ConservAmerica. “We’re still making those phone calls to members right now, making sure we're marking down more support, getting more people engaged and more excited about it.”
Gardner said prioritizing the issues are important as the nation moves toward recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, and that the bill has the potential to create around 100,000 jobs. “This is going to give people that opportunity to continue working in the great outdoors and getting back on their feet economically, as we restore our greatest spaces and as we protect them for generations to come,” Gardner said.
More than 850 conservation groups have also signed a letter supporting the bill.
Asked by Collin O’Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, how backers can help drum up more support for the measure, Gardner suggested reaching out to GOP Sens. Cindy Hyde-Smith and Roger Wicker of Mississippi, Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee and Tim Scott of South Carolina, none of whom are co-sponsors. He also suggested coaxing Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, who Gardner said might dislike the mandatory spending aspect of the bill but could want the conservation bill to be part of his legacy.
“Not that they’re against it, not that they’ve said no, but let’s just wrap it up, lock it in and get ready to roll,” Gardner said, before excusing himself to go “lobby” some of his colleagues at the weekly caucus meeting.
Hyde-Smith, Wicker, Blackburn and Scott did not immediately respond to questions on how they would vote next week.
Shelby is concerned that the bill could undercut Alabama’s share of revenue from offshore drilling, money vital for the Gulf’s coastline preservation and restoration, a spokesperson told CQ Roll Call.
Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana has similar concerns and will attempt to insert language into the bill to increase the amount of offshore revenue that Gulf Coast states receive to address coastal resiliency and restoration efforts.
“Sea level rise and land loss threaten coastal ecosystems,” Cassidy said. “My proposal ensures Gulf and coastal areas receive their fair share of resources to address unique environmental challenges.”
Backers of the bill are pushing for it to be voted on without amendments.
“Sen. Daines understands that coastal state members have certain priorities, and of course he respects their voices,” a spokesperson for Daines told CQ Roll Call. “With that said, Sen. Daines is working with Leader McConnell’s office on pushing for a clean bill with no amendments.”
Texas Republican Ted Cruz is another potential opponent. A spokesperson said the lawmaker is concerned that the federal government already owns more land than it has the capacity to maintain.
“Making a program to acquire more land permanent without making common-sense reforms hurts Texans and Americans across the country,” the Cruz spokesperson said.
Still, the main backers of the bill say they’re confident it will pass.
“This is a big moment for Montana public lands, to protect our Montana way of life and to ensure that we can continue to provide access to our great public lands across Montana and across our great nation,” Daines said through his aide.
President Donald Trump has lent his support to Gardner and Daines, praising them in a March tweet for their conservation efforts and urging Congress to pass a bill that “fully and permanently” funds the LWCF and restores national parks.
Trump’s call contradicts his own budget request for fiscal 2021, which proposed a 97 percent funding cut to the politically popular fund.
After Congress let the program’s authority expire, lawmakers last year passed legislation to permanently reauthorize it but did not guarantee it could collect the full $900 million that Congress intended when it created the program in 1964.
Supporters of the bill say investing in the American outdoors should be a crucial part of the post-coronavirus pandemic recovery and would help create jobs across the country.
“It was a great idea before the pandemic; now it’s a necessity to help get us out of the pandemic,” said O’Mara.