WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate on Tuesday approved a major public lands bill that revives a popular conservation program, adds 1.3 million acres of new wilderness, expands several national parks and creates four new national monuments.
The measure, the largest public lands bill considered by Congress in a decade, combines more than 100 separate bills that designate more than 350 miles of river as wild and scenic, create 2,600 miles of new federal trails and add nearly 700,000 acres of new recreation and conservation areas. The bill also withdraws 370,000 acres in Montana and Washington state from mineral development.
The Senate approved the bill, 92-8, sending it to the House.
Lawmakers from both parties said the bill’s most important provision was to permanently reauthorize the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, which supports conservation and outdoor recreation projects across the country. The program expired last fall after Congress could not agree on language to extend it.
The hodgepodge bill offered something for nearly everyone, with projects stretching across the country.
Even so, the bill was derailed last year after Republican Sen. Mike Lee objected, saying he wanted to exempt his home state of Utah from a law that allows the president to designate federal lands as a national monument protected from development.
Lee’s objection during a heated Senate debate in December forced lawmakers to start over in the new Congress, culminating in Tuesday’s Senate vote.
Sen. Cory Gardner, a Colorado Republican who clashed with Lee on the Senate floor, said the vote caps four years of work to reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund and protect public lands.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said the bill enhances use of public lands and water, while promoting conservation and sporting activities such as hunting and fishing.
The bill includes provisions sponsored by more than half of the senators, Murkowski said, applauding a “very, very collaborative” process.
Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., called the Land and Water Conservation Fund one of the most popular and effective programs Congress has ever created.
The program uses federal royalties from offshore oil and gas drilling to fund conservation and public recreation projects around the country. The fund is authorized to collect $900 million a year but generally receives less than half that amount from Congress.
“This victory was a long time in the making, and it is the result of the steadfast efforts of many who care deeply about America’s natural treasures,” Burr said Tuesday. “Protecting this program is the right thing to do for our children, grandchildren and countless generations so that they may come to enjoy the great American outdoors as we have.”
The bill creates three new national monuments to be administered by the National Park Service and a fourth monument overseen by the Forest Service. The three park service monuments are the Medgar and Myrlie Evers Home National Monument in Mississippi and the Mill Springs and Camp Nelson national monuments in Kentucky.
The Evers site was the home of the slain civil rights leader, while Mill Springs commemorates a Civil War battlefield. Camp Nelson was used as Union Army hospital and recruiting center during the Civil War. President Donald Trump proclaimed Camp Nelson a national monument last year, but the bill gives it permanent, congressionally approved protection.
The bill also designates the former Saint Francis Dam site in California as a national memorial and monument. The dam outside Los Angeles collapsed in 1928, killing 431 people in one of the largest tragedies in California history.
“While this monument will serve as a reminder of the consequences of a failure of infrastructure, it offers a lesson going forward,” said Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif.
Congressional Leaders Invite NATO Secretary-General To Address Congress
WASHINGTON (AP) — Democrats and Republicans are inviting NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg to address a joint meeting of Congress next month around the 70th anniversary of the trans-Atlantic alliance.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, with agreement from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other members of Congress, is expected to extend the invitation, the leaders’ offices said. The address is expected to be one of several events in the U.S. capital celebrating the treaty’s signing in 1949, congressional officials said.
The bipartisan show of support for NATO comes after President Donald Trump has criticized the alliance’s 29-member nations for, in his view, not paying their fair share to protect against threats, such as Russian aggression. He has threatened to pull the U.S. out of the alliance.
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Each of NATO’s countries spends money on its own military capabilities in an effort to lessen dependence on the U.S. for defense against threats. Stoltenberg said that some NATO allies will spend an additional $100 billion by the end of 2020.
The celebration of the alliance’s anniversary is the latest bipartisan defiance of Trump on the issue. McConnell in particular among Republicans has been outspoken about his support for NATO, issuing a memorable rebuke of Trump’s behavior at Russian President Vladimir Putin’s side in Helsinki last summer.
“We value the NATO treaty,” McConnell declared. “We believe the European Union counties are our friends, and the Russians are not.”
For his part, Trump campaigned on the idea that the U.S. is paying too much to defend European countries and vowed to make them pay their fair share. In his State of the Union address in January and in Hanoi last week, Trump misleadingly suggested that the U.S. has “picked up” $100 billion from NATO since he’s been president.
“A hundred billion dollars more has come in,” he said in Hanoi.
In reality, Stoltenberg said on Feb. 15 that NATO allies in Europe and Canada had spent an additional $41 billion on their own defense since 2016, and that by the end of 2020 that figure would rise to $100 billion. So, the $100 billion refers to additional military spending over a four-year period, not over the past two years.
In 2014, during the Obama administration, NATO members agreed to move “toward” spending 2 percent of their gross domestic product on their own defense by 2024. Trump’s pressure may have spurred some countries to increase their spending faster than they planned or to become more serious about moving to the 2 percent goal.
The United States is the biggest and most influential NATO member, contributing about 22 percent of the alliance’s budget.
Member-state contributions were a central point of friction at a NATO summit in Brussels last year. However, in a January interview with Fox News, Stoltenberg said NATO countries heard Trump “loud and clear” and were “stepping up.”
Some analysts have warned diminished U.S. leadership in NATO has already weakened the alliance. Former Ambassador Nicholas Burns said in a recent report NATO is facing its “most difficult” crisis in seven decades and “the single greatest threat (to NATO) is the absence of strong, principled American presidential leadership for the first time in its history.”
Stoltenberg has said Trump will meet with his counterparts from the military alliance at a summit in London in December.
Stoltenberg said Wednesday that the leaders will “address the security challenges we face now and in the future, and to ensure that NATO continues to adapt in order to keep its population of almost 1 billion people safe.”
House Passes Sweeping Election Reform Bill, Senate Will Not Vote On The Measure
WASHINGTON (AP) — The Democratic-controlled House has approved legislation aimed at reducing the role of big money in politics, ensuring fair elections and strengthening ethics standards. But it stands little chance in the Republican-run Senate.
The House measure would make it easier to register and vote, and would tighten election security and require presidential candidates to disclose their tax returns.
Election Day would become a holiday for federal workers, and a public financing system for congressional campaigns would be set up. The legislation approved 234-193 would bar voter roll purges such as those seen in Georgia, Ohio and elsewhere, and restore voting rights for ex-prisoners.
Republicans call it a Democratic power grab that amounts to a federal takeover of elections.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says it’s dead on arrival in that chamber.