Environmental Concerns Prevail Again in House : Congress: A coalition of Democrats, Republicans reject a controversial bill setting policies and spending limits for the Interior Department.


In another indication of a “green” wave in Congress that the Republican leadership seems unable to contain, a coalition of House Democrats and conservation-minded Republicans on Wednesday rejected for a second time a bill setting policies and spending limits for the Interior Department.

The bill would have cut the agency’s funds and made only limited changes in a controversial 123-year-old law that critics say is far too generous to commercial mining operations.

Forty-eight Republicans abandoned their party leadership to join the nearly solid Democratic vote in opposition to the measure. The vote sent the legislation back to a committee of House and Senate negotiators for revision.

While debate focused on mining issues, numerous other provisions--including increased logging and what critics said were risks to endangered species and weakened protection of the Mojave Desert preserve--had brought angry attacks by Administration officials and the promise of a veto by President Clinton unless major changes are made.


The measure would provide $12.1 billion for the Interior Department and several other agencies, including the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities. Overall, it cuts funds for Interior in the current fiscal year by about 10%.

It would give loggers expanded access to the trees of the Tongass National Forest in southern Alaska and allow miners to extract valuable ore from Western mines while paying minuscule royalties to the government.

Reflecting concerns of fiscal conservatives who characterize the mining provisions as a “giveaway” of national resources, and those objecting to assaults on the environment, Rep. Scott L. Klug (R-Wis.) said the legislation offered mining companies “so many loopholes” to restrictions on mining that “you can drive a truckload of billions of dollars of ore right on through.”

For the Republicans, the environment is turning into a hurdle too high for the party leadership to overcome. Since late spring, Democrats have been peeling votes from the Republican team, one by one, as House members returning to their districts heard objections to new efforts to roll back environmental protections.

In this most recent debate, Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) urged his colleagues not to “fall prey . . . to the environmental groups that don’t want Americans working” harvesting trees.

But Rep. Sidney R. Yates (D-Ill.) said the measure “will wreak destruction on so many of our natural resources.”

Among the controversial items in the bill is a provision that would limit to $1 the amount the National Park Service could spend on managing the Mojave preserve. Other funding would be made available to the Bureau of Land Management, but critics say that agency has provided inadequate protection of the region.

Critics also took issue with other elements in the measure, which they said would weaken protection of salmon in the Columbia River Basin, scale back the species protection work of the National Biological Service, and limit the reach of the Endangered Species Act.

Most of the debate, however, focused on the mining issue, which involves a moratorium that limits the issuing of new mining permits. The one-year moratorium was enacted in 1994 in an attempt to update an 1872 law that critics say has allowed mining companies to gain access to perhaps billions of dollars’ worth of gold, copper, silver and other minerals for as little as $2.50 an acre in lease fees.

The House has voted to extend the moratorium for another year; the Senate did not. Wednesday’s vote, in effect, is a demand by the House for the extended moratorium.