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Legislators Feud Over Desert Bill : Government: Sen. Dianne Feinstein has made the protection plan her top priority. But her refusal to compromise with a congressman who represents the area has sparked a fight.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In her quest to get a desert protection bill passed, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has met with dozens of constituents and introduced more than 50 amendments to address their concerns.

But the first-year senator has struck no deals with Jerry Lewis, the Republican congressman who represents the vast scenic area of the California desert that Feinstein wants to turn into the Mojave National Park.

Feinstein, calling Lewis an opponent who has personally demeaned her, has refused to respond to Lewis’ invitation to tour the desert. Lewis, exasperated by Feinstein’s unwillingness to negotiate, has resorted to firing a barrage of critical attacks at the California senator.

“I am quite frankly amazed at Sen. Feinstein’s lack of understanding of desert issues,” Lewis said last week. “It’s insulting to me personally, and to the people who live and work in the desert, that Sen. Feinstein continues to avoid a region she claims to know so much about.”

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The intense feud between Feinstein and Lewis comes as something of a surprise. Both are political moderates who work easily with members of the other party. And they share common political roots: In the 1950s, they served as interns for the prestigious Coro Foundation, the San Francisco-based leadership training center.

Their inability to forge a compromise could have a lasting impact beyond the outcome of the desert bill. Feinstein and Lewis serve on key Appropriations panels in Congress that determine how the federal government spends its money. Their ability to work together--particularly on the funding of veterans, housing and urban programs--could go a long way in bringing more resources to California.

For the time being, however, no harmony exists between the two.

“I doubt very much that we could accomplish very much now,” Lewis said in an interview. “I’m taking her on in a direct and substantive way. She doesn’t like that. . . .”

Shortly after Feinstein was elected to the Senate in November, she pledged to make desert protection her top legislative priority and predicted that it would take her three months to move the bill through the Senate.

Nearly nine months later, Feinstein is still struggling to get the desert bill out of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. The committee is expected to consider the legislation today. Feinstein said she hopes to get the bill passed by the end of the year.

Her California Desert Protection Act would preserve 6.6 million acres of desert terrain managed by the Bureau of Land Management. It would create three national parks--Death Valley, Joshua Tree and Mojave--and 71 wilderness areas that would prohibit off-road vehicle use and new mining claims.

Lewis has urged Feinstein to make the East Mojave Scenic Area, the crown jewel of the desert in terms of diverse landscape and wildlife, a national monument instead of a national park and to allow hunting there--two provisions Feinstein said she cannot support.

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Feinstein said she has not discussed the bill with Lewis since they met in her Senate office in May and reached an impasse.

“When I decided not to compromise on park status, (Lewis) went ballistic,” Feinstein said in an interview Tuesday. “I do not understand the personal nature of (the attacks by Lewis). To me, they just sort of read like cheap shots.”

Feinstein is one in a series of California Democrats--among them former California Sen. Alan Cranston, former Los Angeles Rep. Mel Levine and Rep. Richard H. Lehman of North Fork--who have been unable to reach a consensus with Lewis on the hotly contested desert bill, said Debbie Sease, legislative director of the Sierra Club.

Lewis said he was optimistic that he and Feinstein could negotiate when she introduced the bill in January. To that end, Lewis said, he declined to join other Republican House members who represent the desert in criticizing Feinstein’s bill as the same anti-jobs, anti-recreation measure previously proposed by Cranston. Lewis said he also delayed introducing his competing desert bill for several months in hopes of resolving his differences with Feinstein.

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Lewis said he wrote two letters in an effort to reach out to Feinstein. The first, a handwritten note on April 27, said: “Dianne, I would really like to see a Feinstein Desert Bill this year. You and I can find a reasonable compromise if we have the will . . . Jerry.”

Feinstein said she never received the letter. But the two legislators met in the senator’s office several days later to discuss the desert bill.

Lewis followed up with a May 20 letter inviting Feinstein to join him “on a private, low-key (no press) tour” of the East Mojave.

“What I wanted her to see was the fact that the real problems that exist in the desert where land is being abused is very close to urban settings,” Lewis said in an interview. “None of that territory is in any bill she is considering.”

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Feinstein, who has visited the desert for one day with a Sierra Club official since she ran for the Senate, did not respond to the Lewis invitation. She said she was concerned that Lewis, who had begun attacking her in press releases, could have been planning to embarrass her. Instead, Feinstein said, she intends to visit the desert with residents between now and the time the bill reaches the Senate floor.


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