House aims to vote on public lands legislation by July 4

Senate is scheduled to resume debate on the legislation Monday and vote as early as Tuesday

Louisiana Sen. Bill Cassidy pushed to amend the bill to have it remove the cap on revenue from offshore drilling fees that some states get to help them maintain their coastlines. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Louisiana Sen. Bill Cassidy pushed to amend the bill to have it remove the cap on revenue from offshore drilling fees that some states get to help them maintain their coastlines. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted June 12, 2020 at 12:19pm

The House could vote before July 4 on a massive public lands package, a senior Democratic aide told CQ Roll Call.

The Senate is scheduled to resume debate Monday and vote to adopt the public lands bill as a substitute amendment to an underlying tax bill. A final vote to pass the amended bill could come as early as Tuesday before it's sent to the House.

The public lands package sponsored by Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., would fully and permanently fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund at $900 million a year and address the National Park Service's maintenance backlog. 

With 59 cosponsors and Gardner, the bill will almost certainly overcome the remaining procedural hurdles in the Senate and pass.

It's unclear if some House members will push to make changes to the bill when it's taken up.

A spokesperson for Rep. Joe Cunningham, D-S.C., who introduced the original House companion bill, said the lawmaker expects the House to take the Senate-passed legislation directly to the floor. But the spokesperson added that the exact path through the House is subject to leadership's call.

The Senate has been debating the public lands bill this week and voted 65-19 early Friday to invoke cloture on the substitute amendment that would add the public lands package to the tax measure. 

While the public lands bill has broad bipartisan support, several senators have lamented that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has left no opportunity for amendments.

When the chamber meets on Monday, Sen. Michael B. Enzi, R-Wyo., is expected to raise a budget point of order. Enzi has argued that the package would increase the federal deficit after the massive coronavirus relief spending, and proposed paying for the bill by charging foreign visitors to the U.S. extra in visa fees for maintenance of parks. Gardner will then make a motion to waive the point of order, according to the Senate schedule.

According to the Congressional Budget Office, the legislation would add $17.3 billion to the federal deficit over the next decade.

Support expected

Tom Cors, director of government relations for lands at The Nature Conservancy, who has been in close contact with the lawmakers pushing the bill, told CQ Roll Call, he expects a vote on Tuesday and wide support in the House.

"This number-one has been a long standing priority of the conservation community to really address a reliable funding mechanism for not only the Land and Water Conservation Fund, but also for maintenance of our public lands," Cors said, adding that investing in public lands is important as people return to the outdoors and need jobs to get back on their feet after the coronavirus pandemic.  

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, described the bill as the "real Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone," comparing it to a street in Seattle where people protesting racial inequality have set up a camp closed to uniformed police.

"The Senate is supposed to have an open amendment process precisely so that we can raise concerns and we can find solutions and arrive at genuine, rather than forced to compromise and consensus," Lee said Thursday.

In December 2018, Lee helped blow up at the last minute a public lands bill that would have reauthorized the Land and Water Conservation Fund, months after Congress had let its authority lapse. Lawmakers last year reauthorized the program but did not guarantee that it would receive $900 million each year as Congress intended when it created the program.

Lee has pushed back against the federal government’s land purchases, which are made through the LWCF.

“In its current form, this bill enables the federal government, if it's enacted, to purchase new lands in perpetuity, without accountability, without oversight or any measures to make sure that it can actually care for the land that it owns, perpetuating and worsening our already highly problematic federal public lands policy,” Lee said on the Senate floor Thursday.

He asked unanimous consent that the Senate set up several amendments by different lawmakers who have objections to the public lands package, but his request was rejected. Those amendments included two of his own: one would prohibit the federal government from making acquisitions using LWCF funds until it had received approval from the state where the proposed acquisition would be located. The other would require reports to Congress on the reason for acquisition of new federal land, maintenance of those lands and reports to the state on the amount of property taxes lost.

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In December 2018, Lee helped blow up at the last minute a public lands bill that would have reauthorized the Land and Water Conservation Fund, months after Congress had let its authority lapse. Lawmakers last year reauthorized the program but did not guarantee that it would receive $900 million each year as Congress intended when it created the program.

Lee has pushed back against the federal government’s land purchases, which are made through the LWCF.

“In its current form, this bill enables the federal government, if it's enacted, to purchase new lands in perpetuity, without accountability, without oversight or any measures to make sure that it can actually care for the land that it owns, perpetuating and worsening our already highly problematic federal public lands policy,” Lee said on the Senate floor Thursday.

He asked unanimous consent that the Senate set up several amendments by different lawmakers who have objections to the public lands package, but his request was rejected. Those amendments included two of his own: one would prohibit the federal government from making acquisitions using LWCF funds until it had received approval from the state where the proposed acquisition would be located. The other would require reports to Congress on the reason for acquisition of new federal land, maintenance of those lands and reports to the state on the amount of property taxes lost.

Other senators such as Bill Cassidy, R-La., have pushed for the bill to include his amendment that would remove the cap on offshore revenues that coastal states get to help them maintain their coastlines. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, also had an amendment that would direct the Interior Department to sell off excess federal lands to the public as a way to pay for the legislation.