Politics

Burr to Hold Up Water Bill, Slow Others, for Conservation Fund

North Carolina senator: ‘We’re going to vote on it on every vehicle leaving the United States Senate’

A move by Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., could become a major hurdle for his Republican colleagues as they try to pass a water infrastructure bill. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Sen. Richard M. Burr will not allow a vote on a key water infrastructure bill unless he receives a commitment for a vote on his legislation to permanently reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund, senators said.

The North Carolina Republican is also threatening to force senators to vote on his bill as a prelude to action on any other measure that reaches the Senate floor, potentially including the appropriations bill receiving floor consideration this week.

“We’re going to vote on it on every vehicle leaving the United States Senate. Don’t know how I can be clearer,” Burr said Wednesday. 

His bill would preserve the LWCF, an Interior Department program to protect national parks, water resources and wildlife areas and make them available to the public for recreation.

“Every vehicle’s going to have it on it until it’s reauthorized — until it’s extended,” he said.

He is seeking to attach the bill as an amendment to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee’s bill to authorize Army Corps of Engineers projects and other water infrastructure policy. 

His position represents a major hurdle for Republicans seeking floor consideration of the water infrastructure bill and comes after Senate Democrats resolved the last issue that was raising resistance to a floor vote from their caucus.

Democrats had been split over an amendment from Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski of Alaska that included a provision to allow the Interior secretary to transfer Bureau of Reclamation water assets to non-federal operators.

But Senate Environment and Public Works ranking Democrat Thomas R. Carper of Delaware said the bill, with the amendment included, has been run by all Senate Democrats and no one objected.

“We hotlined the bill,” he said Wednesday evening. “It’s OK on our side. Republicans, as I understand it, an hour ago are still talking about Sen. Burr’s interest in the Land Water Conservation Fund, somehow attaching that to our bill. … And so the ball’s in their court. Hopefully, Richard will say there are other opportunities.”

Environment and Public Works Chairman John Barrasso of Wyoming confirmed Carper’s account.

“That’s an accurate description,” he said.

Burr has previously used the LWCF as roadblock to legislation. Last month, he scuttled the $14 billion rescissions package because it would remove $16 million in federal funding for the program, representing 0.1 percent of the total of the bill.

LWCF reauthorization is likely to become a contentious public lands battle between the Senate and House Republicans. The fund is set to expire at the end of this fiscal year, at which time it would be precluded from collecting new receipts, derived mainly from offshore oil and gas leasing royalties. And with limited must-pass legislative options available before then, supporters are targeting any opportunity they can to attach a reauthorization.

House Republicans are critical of the program, saying it leads to increased federal control and limitations to public lands, especially in western states. Combined with a nearly $16 billion deferred maintenance backlog across Interior Department-managed land, they say an overhaul is needed to bring in more local and state control of the program.

The program has broad Capitol Hill support.

LWCF money has gone to nearly every congressional district in the nation with funding to help construct trails, provide outdoor recreation opportunities and local community centers and baseball diamonds. In fiscal 2018, Congress funded LWCF at $425 million, just under half of its $900 million authorized level.

But not even Burr’s allies are fully behind his approach.

“I want to get LWCF done, but I’m not sure that is the path,” said Sen. Maria Cantwel, the top Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and frequent LWCF collaborator with Burr. “But I’m on board with his enthusiasm for wanting to resolve LWCF.”

Appropriations

Burr has also joined Sens. Cory Gardner,Michael Bennet, Jeanne Shaheen and Steve Daines on an amendment to the Interior-Environment title of the fiscal 2019 spending package on the floor this week that would also permanently authorize the program.

That amendment has not yet received a floor vote, and it remains unclear whether Burr’s commitment to getting a vote could muck up consideration of that bill. Senators have thus far avoided contentious policy riders that could upset the bill’s progress.

Gardner told reporters Wednesday that lawmakers are still pushing for a vote on their amendment.

“We continue to talk to Sen. Murkowski and leadership about the amendment. Hopefully, it’s something we can get done,” Gardner said. “There’s very little pushback. There’s always the tendency to say not on this bill, not at this time. The problem with that approach is, that’s what kept this from happening over the past three years.”

“Now is as good as time as any and ever to make this happen,” he added.

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