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Senate passes sweeping conservation legislation in bipartisan vote

Posted at 11:34 AM, Jun 17, 2020
and last updated 2020-06-17 14:08:02-04

The Senate on Tuesday approved with bipartisan support a sweeping and historic conservation and public lands bill that President Donald Trump has pledged to sign into law.

The Great American Outdoors Act, which would next need to be taken up in the House before it could go to the President for his signature, passed the Senate by a vote of 73 to 25.

The legislation would fully and permanently fund a conservation program known as the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which was set up by Congress in the 1960s and has been chronically underfunded. The measure will require mandatory funding of the program at a level of $900 million annually.

The legislation would also dedicate funding for backlogged maintenance projects on federal lands run by the National Park Service, the Forest Service and other agencies.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, spoke in support of the legislation ahead of a final vote on Wednesday, saying, "I hope following our action, the House will take it up and pass it quickly. The President has already said he is eager to sign it. We should not let this historic opportunity to pass it by. I look forward to passing this monumental legislation."

U.S. Sen. Steve Daines of Montana released this statement about the passage of the bill in the Senate:

“Today, we passed the most important conservation bill for Montana and the nation in decades - one that will increase public access to our public lands, support our national parks and importantly, protect our Montana outdoor way of life,” Daines said. “I look forward to seeing it pass the House and getting it onto President Trump’s desk for his signature.”

Sen. Jon Tester also released a statement shortly after the Senate approved the measure.

“Today, we made history,” said Tester. “This is a moment that Montanans have been working toward for decades, and it wouldn’t have been possible without the years of relentless hard work from the folks back home who know just how critical LWCF is to our state’s economy. Not only will this landmark bill provide even more resources for our $7.1 billion outdoor recreation industry and the 71,000 jobs that support it, but it will help create and maintain our unmatched public lands for our kids and grandkids, and the many generations that follow.”

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock also released a statement about the passage of the bill.

“For over fifty years, the Land and Water Conservation Fund has supported our outdoor economy in Montana. Though long overdue, I am glad that the Senate finally followed through on permanent, full-funding for the LWCF and addressed the backlog of maintenance for our public lands. I especially want to applaud Senator Jon Tester who has been unwavering in his fight for this legislation for over a decade.”

“Seeing the Great American Outdoors Act passed with overwhelming bipartisan support is a great reminder that Republicans and Democrats can actually come together to get things done for the American people. Heck, we do it all the time here in Montana. But too often important issues that have broad support –– from investing in infrastructure to passing the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act –– get put on hold because of political games in Washington.”

“Call me crazy, but I believe it shouldn’t take Congress this long to follow through on its commitments to the American people. Our political system has been trapped in gridlock caused by party leaders and special interests. While I also applaud Steve Daines efforts in helping get this across the finish line, Montanans deserve leadership that stands up for public lands and the best interests of the people of our state every day — not just in election years.”

The Senate's approval of the legislation represents a rare moment of bipartisan unity in the chamber and comes at a time of national crises as the country grapples with the devastating toll of the coronavirus pandemic and nationwide protests and calls to action over police misconduct and racial injustice.

Approval of the measure also represents a major victory for two Republican senators who pushed hard for its passage and are facing competitive reelection races this year: Cory Gardner of Colorado and Steve Daines of Montana.

The Great American Outdoors Act was introduced by Gardner, Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and a bipartisan group of senators. Gardner and Daines, an original co-sponsor of the legislation, worked together to push for passage in the Senate, including meeting with Trump directly to make their case and win his support for the bill. Gardner and Daines secured a commitment from McConnell to bring it to a vote and from the President to sign it into law.

McConnell thanked a number of senators on Wednesday for their work to advance the legislation, including singling out Gardner and Daines for praise.

"This major legislation is only before us because of the persistent effort on the part of several of our colleagues, so one last time I'd like to thank Senator Gardner and Senator Daines for their outstanding leadership," he said.

Gardner is fighting to keep his seat in a battleground state that Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton won in 2016 and where Democrats have recruited former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper to run against him.

While Montana is reliably in Republican hands for Trump's 2020 effort, Daines faces competition from another Democrat with a track record of winning statewide: current Governor Steve Bullock.

Both Bullock and Hickenlooper unsuccessfully pursued 2020 presidential bids, before dropping out and later entering the Senate races in their respective states.

Republicans are fighting to hold onto their Senate majority in 2020 and keeping both of those seats could prove critical to that effort.

At the same time, the conservation legislation also exposed some rifts within the GOP as the Senate took it up.

Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah raised concerns with the legislation in a floor speech last week, saying, "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 it can actually care for the land that it owns, perpetuating and worsening our already highly-problematic federal public lands policy."