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Desert Bill Deadlock Broken : Environment: Feinstein says Republicans have agreed to a schedule that could lead to a vote on the last day of the session. Backers are cautiously optimistic.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) announced Thursday that progress had been made in freeing the California desert bill from parliamentary gridlock after Republican foes agreed to allow the massive land-use legislation to go to a House-Senate conference committee.

Under the arrangement hammered out by Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell of Maine and Minority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas, the bill will be placed on a nerve-racking procedural schedule with a final vote planned for next Friday--the day that Congress hopes to adjourn.

The bill, known as the California Desert Protection Act, could still be derailed if partisan disputes erupt during the final, frenetic days of legislative business, and proponents stressed that its fate remains uncertain.

But Feinstein and other supporters are cautiously optimistic that the framework is in place to pass the bill--albeit in end-of-session melodramatic fashion.

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“This is the best offer we’ve had, and gives us a fighting chance,” said Feinstein, who has been chief sponsor of the bill since she arrived in Washington in 1992.

During a Democratic Caucus meeting Monday, Feinstein and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) implored Mitchell to break the deadlock. He telephoned Feinstein Wednesday night to report the agreement with Dole.

The Mitchell-Dole arrangement calls for House and Senate conferees to be selected Tuesday and for a reconciled version of the bill to be returned the next day. Assuming there are no political flare-ups, the compromise version would be put to final votes next Friday.

“If that’s the opportunity we’re given, I’ll take it,” said Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez), chairman of the Natural Resources Committee and prime mover of the desert bill in the House. “It had very substantial support from both parties but it’s been hung up for months by one of two senators . . . (but I think) we can get it done.”

The bill’s nemesis in the Senate has been Malcolm Wallop, a Wyoming Republican and adamant foe of the legislation who is retiring after 17 years in the upper chamber.

He refused to let the bill go to conference and forced time-consuming votes on other procedural motions. Even though supporters apparently have more than enough votes for final passage, the delaying tactics threatened to run out the clock on the bill.

According to Janis Williams, a Wallop spokeswoman, the bill’s timetable next week is roughly the same as if the other procedural votes had taken place. To reach a compromise, Republicans dropped their opposition to the conference committee and Mitchell waived some debating requirements, Williams said.

Should the bill win final passage, it will almost certainly be lacking one of its original key goals: making the East Mojave National Scenic Area into a new national park. The Senate bill upgraded the land but the House, succumbing to pressure from the National Rifle Assn., made the land a preserve where hunting could continue.

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“That will be discussed in conference,” Miller said. “But the House has voted twice (to approve preserve status), so the likelihood (of such a compromise) is pretty good.”

Nearly 8 million acres would be preserved under the legislation. In the House and Senate versions, Death Valley and Joshua Tree national monuments would become national parks and have their lands expanded. Millions of acres of desert territory would be off limits to mining and motorized recreation.

The desert bill would become the largest land conservation law since the 1980 Alaska Lands Act, which protected 103 million acres from development.


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