Congress' Green Signal Flashes at White House


The Senate on Wednesday banned new coal mining and oil and gas drilling in national monuments, the latest in a series of recent bipartisan votes bearing an unmistakable message to the White House: Forget about rolling back environmental protections.

Also on Wednesday, the House struck down a provision supported by the Bush administration that could hinder progress on global climate change policy. Other recent rebuffs included rejections of administration initiatives on such issues as the Endangered Species Act, hard-rock mining regulations and offshore drilling for oil and gas.

Together, these recent votes, from both the GOP-controlled House and the Democratic-led Senate, signal that most members of Congress, including many Republicans, are determined to dissociate themselves from President Bush's unpopular environmental policies before the next election.

"I think it is a part of a broader message telling the strategists in the White House that some of their early decisions were very unpopular, even with Republicans," said Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), who sponsored the monument amendment. "The president has dug himself in a hole here, and a number of people in his party don't want to fall in it with him."

The monument measure, an amendment to the Interior Department spending bill, passed on a voice vote, but 10 Republicans joined all but four Democrats to reject an effort to scuttle the amendment.

Even energy lobbyists, who side with Bush on most of these issues, agree that Republicans are voting green to distance themselves from Bush.

"The last thing a whole group of Republicans wants is to be labeled as anti-environment before 2002," said John Grasser, spokesman for the National Mining Assn.

In the first months of the Bush administration, the White House has rejected, weakened or postponed several environmental policies enacted late in the Clinton administration. The president has also called for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, rejected the international Kyoto global warming pact and reversed a campaign promise to regulate emissions of carbon dioxide from power plants.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the administration does not perceive a rebuke from Congress.

"This is a president strongly committed to expanding conservation and safeguarding our environment," he said. "We will continue to work with Congress on areas where we agree."

The rebellious Congress surely will hamper the administration as it attempts to implement one of its highest priority initiatives--its energy policy--and to make environmental regulations more flexible for businesses.

The Senate ban on new drilling and mining in national monuments echoed an overwhelming House vote last month and delivered a final blow to administration hopes to keep open the option of producing gas and oil from the preserved lands.

Although the administration has not targeted any specific monuments for new drilling, Bush and Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton have said that they want to keep that option open as they search for more domestic supplies of oil and gas on public lands.

The two California monuments with economically recoverable oil and gas reserves are the Carrizo Plain National Monument, west of Bakersfield, and the California Coastal National Monument--the islands, exposed reefs, pinnacles and tide pools that stretch 840 miles along the coastline and provide an essential feeding habitat for thousands of bird species, including the bald eagle. The former was more vulnerable, because of the broad bipartisan support for protecting the California coastline.

National monuments, like national parks, are set aside to be preserved for future generations. Presidents have the authority to create monuments without congressional approval. Many monuments have become national parks.

The Senate debate on the issue highlighted the deep philosophical difference among senators on whether national monuments should be put off-limits for energy development.

"President Bush needs to realize that damaging these irreplaceable lands is not going to solve the energy crisis," Durbin said. He stressed that the quantity of economically recoverable energy in the monuments is relatively small, amounting to 15 days of the nation's oil consumption and seven days of the nation's natural gas consumption.

But the chief opponent of the amendment, Sen. Conrad R. Burns (R-Mont.), strongly advocated preserving the option of drilling in the name of energy security.

The overall Interior Department spending bill includes many other provisions that reject Bush administration priorities.

The Senate followed the House in ignoring an administration request that would give Norton wide authority to decide which plants and animals should be protected under the 1973 Endangered Species Act.

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