A controversial bill to preserve 8 million acres of California desert, much of it in San Bernardino County, stalled in committee Wednesday.
Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), the bill's sponsor, accused Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.) of masterminding a procedural tactic that prevented the Energy and Natural Resources Committee from voting on the bill.
Wilson, who was in California campaigning for governor, denied Cranston's charge that he called on Sen. James McClure (R-Ida.) to perform a parliamentary maneuver that ended the meeting. McClure, the committee's ranking minority member, denied that he was responsible for blocking the bill's expected passage out of committee.
But Cranston, in a phone interview, said he was "disappointed that a ranking minority member blocked action, and they plainly did it on behalf of Sen. Wilson."
The bill would expand Joshua Tree and Death Valley national monuments by making both national parks, create a 1.5-million-acre East Mojave National Park east of Barstow, designate 4.4 million acres in 81 separate tracts as permanent wilderness and add 20,500 acres to Red Rock Canyon State Park.
Wilson has expressed opposition to the bill, but has not detailed his objections.
Cranston said he has several options to revive the bill and may try to schedule another committee hearing before Congress' session ends in a couple of weeks. Alternately, he said, he may attempt to bring his bill to the Senate floor as an amendment to some bill slated for floor discussion, or wait until next year.
Wilson has missed all 29 votes taken by the Senate since Congress returned from its August recess. "The campaign for governor is the most important issue for California at this time," Bill Livingstone, the senator's press secretary, said as Wilson continued pursuing votes in California while missing four more votes in the nation's capital Wednesday.
The parliamentary maneuver used to prevent the vote is listed under the standing rules of the Senate. It states that no committee can meet for more than two hours while the Senate is in session unless the floor unanimously agrees to continue the meeting. A committee member may object to a floor request for more time, thus ending the meeting within two hours--which is what an unidentified senator did at Wednesday's hearing.
On the House side, a bill similar to Cranston's, introduced by Rep. Mel Levine (D-Santa Monica), has been on hold since spring in a House Interior subcommittee. The subcommittee also has before it a less extensive desert-preservation bill that would protect the interests of many ranchers and off-road vehicle users.
The latter bill, sponsored by Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Highland) and three other Republicans, would designate 2.1 million acres of California desert as wilderness, but would preserve livestock grazing rights and authorize motor vehicle access in some areas.