In a rebuff to the Bush administration, the Senate on Wednesday rejected a Pentagon request to ease laws protecting endangered species on military lands.
With four Republicans breaking with the White House, the Senate voted, 51 to 48, to force the Pentagon to adhere to strict federal rules for conservation of endangered species.
Defense officials argue a regulatory rollback would allow the armed forces the freedom they need to conduct training exercises on military bases. Shortly after the Senate action, the House voted, 252 to 175, in favor of the Pentagon request.
The split between the two chambers set up a battle in coming negotiations over a $400-billion defense bill.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, at the Capitol to meet with lawmakers, told reporters the Senate vote was “a mistake” and pledged to try to undo it.
He said “aggressive litigation” by environmental groups in recent years has threatened to curtail legitimate military activities -- possibly forcing the Pentagon to send “men and women to battle without the training they need.”
The Pentagon controls an estimated 25 million acres of land in the United States, including habitats for hundreds of threatened or endangered species.
Democrats dismissed Rumsfeld’s comments. They noted that U.S. forces have prevailed in recent conflicts with Afghanistan and Iraq without any apparent hindrance from the Endangered Species Act.
“This issue is really about balancing national security with our environmental security, and the Pentagon has shown in the past that we can do it,” said Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.). He sponsored the amendment to the defense bill that would thwart the administration’s plan.
The Senate and House are both expected today to easily approve their versions of the bill, which would authorize $400 billion to pay for defense programs in the 2004 fiscal year, which begins in October.
But the dispute over whether to relax environmental regulations for the Pentagon looms as a key sticking point when negotiations begin on a compromise bill.
In the vote on Lautenberg’s amendment, Republican Sens. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Susan Collins and Olympia J. Snowe of Maine joined 46 Democrats and one independent to oppose the Pentagon request. Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer of California voted for the amendment.
The House, agreeing to an amendment sponsored by Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon), would exempt the Pentagon from certain provisions of the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
To buttress his argument, Hunter pointed to a map of a beach where Marines train at Camp Pendleton. He said vast swaths of the training range were off limits due to concerns about the coastal California gnatcatcher, a threatened songbird, and other species.
“People have said, ‘Are you killing the environment? Are you hurting the environment? Are you revamping the environment?’ The answer is no,” Hunter said. “What we’re doing is providing freedom to train for our troops.”
In the House vote on Hunter’s amendment, 30 Democrats -- including Rep. Dennis A. Cardoza of Atwater -- joined 222 Republicans to back the Pentagon’s proposal. Cardoza was the only Californian to break party ranks on the issue.
In other action on the bill, Rumsfeld won a victory on nuclear policy, as Republicans defeated a Democratic attempt to stop $15 million in funding for research on earth-penetrating nuclear bombs.
The Pentagon has proposed repealing a 10-year ban on research and development of battlefield nuclear weapons with a destructive force of 5 kilotons or less. By comparison, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima had an estimated force of 12.5 kilotons, according to a spokesman for the government’s Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. Each kiloton is equivalent to 1,000 tons of TNT.
Also Wednesday, the Senate agreed to a proposal that would explicitly require the administration to win congressional approval before developing and producing such “low-yield” nuclear weapons. Still, Democrats said they were disheartened.
“We’ve told other countries in the world, ‘Don’t go nuclear,’ ” said Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee. “And yet, the message of the administration is when we’re telling everybody else, ‘Don’t go down that road,’ we are going to go down that road ourselves.”