GOP gun rights battle stymies wilderness protection in House
WASHINGTON - The House yesterday defeated a bill to set aside more than 2 million acres in nine states as protected wilderness - the victim of a renewed Republican push to allow concealed, loaded weapons in national parks.
A majority of House members supported the wilderness bill, but the measure was defeated because it did not receive the needed two-thirds vote. The vote was 282 to 144 in favor - two votes short of approval.
Supporters said the bill was brought up under a special rule - which severely restricts amendments - because majority Democrats were afraid that Republicans would introduce an amendment allowing guns in parks. With dozens of Democrats supporting gun rights, such a measure stood a good chance of passage, advocates and staff aides in both parties said.
A similar maneuver by Republicans - to repeal most of the District of Columbia's gun-control laws - has jeopardized legislation giving the district a vote in the House of Representatives. The measure remains stalled as House leaders ponder their next move.
Advocates said the wilderness bill also may languish.
Democratic leaders "are afraid of any motion on guns, frankly, " said Mike Matz, executive director of the Campaign for America's Wilderness, an advocacy group that has pushed for the wilderness bill for more than a year.
The gun issue has emboldened Republicans, Matz and others said. "They want to obstruct anything and everything, apparently," Matz said of GOP leaders in the House. "They don't care that some of their members want to get something done" on wilderness.
House minority leader John Boehner, Republican of Ohio, said the defeated bill would have cost as much as $10 billion and blocked oil and gas development on millions of acres of federal property. "This bill would have locked-up critical resources that are essential for" increased energy production and lower gas prices, Boehner said.
The dispute over guns in parks reaches back to the Bush administration, which issued a last-minute order allowing loaded guns in national parks and wildlife refuges shortly before leaving office. The rule, which took effect Jan. 9, overturns 25-year policy that allowed guns in parks only if they were unloaded, or dismantled and stored.
The Obama administration is reviewing the rule, but many lawmakers from both parties support a measure making the Bush rule law.
Majority Democrats were sufficiently worried about the gun issue that they agreed to amend the wilderness bill to clarify that it would not impose new restrictions on hunting, fishing, or trapping on federal land. The amendment, sponsored by Representative Jason Altmire, Democrat of Pennsylvania, was a victory for the National Rifle Association, which also sought the rule change on guns in parks.
But even with the Altmire amendment, the wilderness measure fell two votes short. The NRA did not take a position on the overall bill, said Andrew Arulanandam, a group spokesman.
Democratic leaders vowed to bring the wilderness bill back, but did not say in what form.
The Senate has already approved the wilderness bill, one of the largest expansions of wilderness protection in 25 years. The 1,200-page bill would confer the government's highest level of protection on land, for example, ranging from California's Sierra Nevada mountain range to Oregon's Mount Hood.