After more than 10 hours of partisan wrangling, the House Resources Committee on Thursday night approved a controversial revision of the Endangered Species Act that emphasizes private property rights and would limit the federal government's role in preserving embattled strains of plants and animals.
The bill, authored by Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), chairman of the committee, and Rep. Richard Pombo (R-Tracy), calls for the government to compensate private property owners for the lost use of their lands and establish incentive programs to encourage landowners to voluntarily conserve critical habitat.
The measure would also shift more responsibility to the states and property owners to work out recovery plans for threatened species and their ecosystems.
The action came on a largely party line 27-17 vote that underscored the deep divisions the bill has opened up.
The measure's sponsors say they seek to bring back into balance a well-meaning law that has been over-administered.
"This bill recognizes that a program combining incentives and rewards is best for both property owners and species," said Pombo, who headed a GOP task force on overhauling the 1973 law protecting endangered species. "The current system of penalties and threats from government agents has been a failure."
The law has been credited with saving the bald eagle and grizzly bear, but its critics say it now often prevents individuals and businesses from using their property in order to protect little-known birds, rodents and insects.
While Republicans on the committee hailed the bill as overdue reform, Democrats contended that the measure cuts the heart out of a keystone of environmental law and represents a retreat from nearly 25 years of environmental protection.
"This bill ignores the recommendations of the nation's leading scientists and repudiates strong public support for protecting imperiled wildlife," said Michael Bean of the Environmental Defense Fund.
Some Republicans are uncomfortable with the bill's provisions, even though a more moderate version of the bill, offered by Rep. Wayne Gilchrest (R-Md.), lost on a 28-17 vote during a long, rancorous committee session.
But the bill's fate on the House floor is uncertain. Gilchrest is expected to re-offer his substitute and Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) is reportedly unhappy with some parts of the Young-Pombo measure.
"If this is a bill they want signed into law, they have a long way to go," said Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez), Young's Democratic predecessor as chairman of the Resources Committee.
"This went beyond addressing legitimate concerns about the Endangered Species Act to satisfying every yahoo out there who had some gripe. But you can't underestimate how serious they are. They have a substantial constituency in the House and will continue to push."
As for Gingrich helping to tone down the committee bill, Miller was cautious.
"He said he wasn't for repeal of the Endangered Species Act, but that doesn't tell us anything. Everyone who voted for the [Young-Pombo] bill said they weren't for repeal of the Endangered Species Act either, but that's what they did, in effect. But . . . I don't see how this bill could be acceptable to [Gingrich]."
Some environmental groups also perceive the Young-Pombo bill as too extreme for many Republicans.
"The moderates I talk to are panicked," said Marchant Wentworth, a Washington spokesman for the Sierra Club. "They see something like this coming on the floor and pulling them all down. They know the environmentalists around here are going to jump around, dress up like Bambi and nail them on this."
Although there is a similar bill in the Senate, moderates such as Sen. John Chafee (R-R.I.) are expected to support a measure more closely resembling the existing law.