Pretty pictures sold Trump on outdoors bill, backers say

Two vulnerable GOP senators found a way to gain president's support for funding public lands needs

Yellowstone National Park is seen at the Lewis River and Lewis Falls in Wyoming. Sens. Cory Gardner and Steve Daines say they showed the president beautiful park photos to win his support for a public lands bill.  (NurPhoto/Getty Images)
Yellowstone National Park is seen at the Lewis River and Lewis Falls in Wyoming. Sens. Cory Gardner and Steve Daines say they showed the president beautiful park photos to win his support for a public lands bill. (NurPhoto/Getty Images)
Posted June 17, 2020 at 5:46pm, Updated at 7:54pm

Showing President Donald Trump beautiful pictures of national parks helped Sens. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., and Steve Daines, R-Mont., win the crucial backing they needed to get their public lands bill in motion.

The senators, both considered vulnerable and in need of moderate voters in November, said on Wednesday that they needed Trump’s support to coax Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to bring their outdoors package to the Senate floor.

The Senate on Wednesday voted 73-25 to pass the outdoors package after less than two weeks of debate and no substantive amendments.

Gardner, the bill’s sponsor, said the lawmakers met with Trump and Larry Kudlow, his top economic adviser, in the White House's Roosevelt Room a few months ago.

Gardner showed Trump a photo of a Colorado national park.

“And he said, ‘It’s beautiful,’” Gardner told reporters shortly after the bill’s passage.

“We pointed to the picture of Teddy Roosevelt on the wall and told him this could be the biggest accomplishment after Teddy Roosevelt,” Gardner said, referring to the former president.

Loading the player...

Daines also showed Trump photos of Montana outdoor scenes and said the Land and Water Conservation Fund, for which the bill would provide permanent funding at the level Congress originally intended, would allow the public better access to their public lands.

“After an hour, he leaned back in his chair, he crossed his arms and he said, ‘If you can get this passed, I look forward to signing it,’” Daines recalled.

After that meeting, Trump in March tweeted praise for the lawmakers’ public lands efforts and said he wanted Congress to bring him a bill.

“The Senate has acted on President Trump’s request, and passed the Great American Outdoors Act to help fix the aging infrastructure of the National Park Service,” Judd Deere, a White House spokesman, told CQ Roll Call. “The House must follow and move the bill to the president’s desk.”

The bill would get a House floor vote before the July 4 break, a Democratic aide said.

The bill would fund the LWCF at $900 million a year. It would also provide $9.5 billion to help clear part of the Interior Department’s nearly $20 billion in maintenance projects that had been deferred because of budget constraints.

“We are one crucial step closer to getting this major win for parks across the finish line,” said Will Shafroth, president and CEO of the National Park Foundation. “The Great American Outdoors Act provides much needed funding to repair and enhance national park facilities, roads, water systems, trails and other resources that are essential to the visitor experience.”

Reelection politics

The legislative victory could help Gardner and Daines tout their conservation credentials to try to win over moderate voters in their November reelection campaigns. Gardner is in a tight race in a state that has a massive outdoor economy, and former Gov. John Hickenlooper is 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.

Both lawmakers, however, pushed back on questions about the role that election-year politics played in getting the bill to the floor as McConnell tries to maintain a GOP majority in the chamber.

“This is not about politics for me. … Montanans love the outdoors,” said Daines, the main GOP co-sponsor, echoing statements by Gardner. “This is the culmination of years and years of work to get to this point today.”

Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., a main co-sponsor of the bill, also came to the lawmakers’ defense, saying the prescriptions in the outdoor package are good government. “It’s good politics, but it’s better government,” Manchin said.

Despite bipartisan support, the lawmakers had to ward off attempts by several oil-state Republicans who lamented the closed amendment process that denied them the chance to make changes that reflect their states’ priorities.Senators who voted against the bill included John Barrasso of Wyoming, Ted Cruz of Texas, James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma and Richard C. Shelby of Alabama.

Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., also voted against it after his effort to offer an amendment that would provide more money for coastal states from offshore drilling was rejected.

“The Senate missed an opportunity to invest in coastal resiliency to protect against flooding and hurricanes,” Cassidy said after the vote. “This is money the coast needs for its communities to survive. This fight is not over.”

But bill backers said adding amendments would have made it more controversial and harder to pass.

“This is a historic win for the United States,” Gardner said. “And it comes at a time when the American people need to see Congress come together and pull for the country.”

Conservation groups that have been pushing for increased LWCF and national parks maintenance funding cheered the bill as a historic investment in public lands for generations to come.

“It’s not often that lawmakers can say they helped pass legislation that will have an impact decades into the future, but today’s vote on the Great American Outdoors Act is one they can tell their grandchildren about,” said Marcia Argust, project director of The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Restore America’s Parks campaign. “The House of Representatives must step up and act next, so that our national parks and public lands can be repaired, restored and protected for future generations.”