Committee OKs wildlife bill, but partisan divisions remain

By Emma Dumain | 01/20/2022 06:29 AM EST

A committee debate yesterday on a sweeping wildlife conservation bill exposed deep partisan divisions that could stymie success on an otherwise bipartisan proposal.

Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.)

House Natural Resources ranking member Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.). Francis Chung/E&E News

A committee debate yesterday on a sweeping wildlife conservation bill exposed deep partisan divisions that could stymie success on an otherwise bipartisan proposal.

At a markup of the House Natural Resources Committee, Republicans praised the "Recovering America’s Wildlife Act," H.R. 2773, as necessary to combat the biodiversity crisis and prevent future additions to the list of endangered species.

But they also proposed multiple amendments designed to undermine the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act — federal programs Democrats hold dear.


The two parties similarly got no closer to an agreement on a suitable offset for the measure’s nearly $1.4 billion in annual spending, a sticking point a majority of Republicans on the committee said they needed in order to ultimately support the legislation.

“I take the need for offsets very seriously,” the committee’s ranking member, Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.), said.

It’s unclear what’s next for a bill that supporters have been pushing for more than five years. Advocates on and off Capitol Hill say it would, if passed, constitute one of the most consequential acts of conservation policy in the last century.

Having advanced in the committee yesterday on a 29-15 vote, the bill would likely have the backing to pass in the Democratic-controlled House.

Four Republicans joined 25 Democrats in voting for the bill, which has 151 co-sponsors in the House — 37 of them GOP members. On the Senate bill, S. 2372, there are currently 32 co-sponsors, equally split between the two parties.

However, supporters have said the bill’s fate in the Senate depends on its ability to withstand partisan politics, which likely won’t be resolved without a deal on a pay-for.

The "Recovering America’s Wildlife Act" would amend a 1937 law known as the Pittman-Robertson Act, which provides funding for the restoration and improvement of wildlife habitat and management.

The legislation would provide an additional $1.3 billion per year for states and territories and $97.5 million per year for tribal entities, to assist in their efforts to conserve, restore and protect wildlife and habitats.

Earlier iterations of the bill relied on revenue from energy extraction and mining activities, but that approach was scrapped in 2019 when Democrats regained control of the House. The current version would provide funding from the general U.S. Treasury, with states required to provide at least 25 percent in matching funds.

In other words, the House bill has no offsets.

‘A bit of caution’

During debate, Westerman proposed three amendments to address the funding issue.

The first, which was rebuffed 17-25, would have instituted a seven-year sunset date to the bill and required the Department of the Interior to find unspent balances within the agency to fund the program.

The second, rejected by a voice vote, would have tapped into the $2.5 billion loan authority for the Western Area Power Administration to develop renewable energy projects — a funding stream created by the Obama-era stimulus law in 2009 that was, in Westerman’s view, “snuck” into the final bill without congressional debate.

Westerman’s third amendment, rejected 17-25, would have included the seven-year sunset date and switched the funding to a discretionary model versus one that would guarantee dollars in perpetuity.

“I could support this bill if it has this amendment in it,” Westerman said. “If we can’t get an amendment like this in the committee, I don’t know how we can get an amendment like this on the floor.”

Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), who Republicans praised for her efforts to engage with their party on the "Recovering America’s Wildlife Act," promised she would keep working with GOP lawmakers on finding a sufficient funding mechanism.

“I am totally committed to finding that offset before this comes to the House floor,” she said.

However, nobody yesterday suggested that the House might amend its version of the "Recovering America’s Wildlife Act" to conform with the Senate’s proposed pay-for, which would at least partially offset the price tag with fees and fines paid by polluters.

Critics, including Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) — chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee — have said the fee approach is both unreliable and untested, and that it needs to change before it can move forward in the Senate.

And House Natural Resources Chair Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) stressed that political differences could complicate the search for a compromise.

“An offset you, my colleagues on the other side of the aisle, find absolutely OK, those on our side find them as not OK [and] go against some fundamental values, that go against our mission as a committee and our charge as a committee,” Grijalva said. “Just a bit of caution.”

Meanwhile, Republicans indicated yesterday they wanted more than just a pay-for as a condition of their support. GOP members of the Natural Resources Committee offered more than half a dozen amendments that would restrict how funds could be used in the "Recovering America’s Wildlife Act" that would undercut bedrock environmental laws Democrats have spent years trying to safeguard.

An amendment from Rep. Matt Rosendale (R-Mont.), defeated 20-24, would compensate private land and business owners for losses related to the designation of a threatened or endangered species under the Endangered Species Act.

And Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) sought adoption of an amendment that would have changed the periodic reporting requirement for states receiving funds under the "Recovering America’s Wildlife Act" to detail how certain projects have been hampered by existing federal laws and regulations, including the ESA and NEPA. It was not adopted, 19-25.

“I’d like to see more consideration of Republican amendments,” Boebert said during the committee markup, “because we are trying to get to ‘yes’ for this bill.”

Other bills

The House Natural Resources Committee also advanced the following bills:

  • H.R. 3228, from Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.), to direct the secretary of Commerce to streamline services in response to coastal flood risks, as amended, by voice vote.
  • H.R. 5118, from Rep. Joe Neguse (D-Colo.), to direct the secretary of Agriculture to prioritize the completion of the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail in Colorado, as amended in the nature of a substitute, by voice vote.
  • H.R. 2872, from Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.), to establish a national approach for responding to the effects of extreme weather and climate change in cooperation with state, local and tribal governments, in a 23-18 vote.
  • H.R. 1415, from Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.), to amend the Coastal Zone Management Act of 1972 to authorize grants to Indian tribes to further coastal resiliency objectives, as amended in the nature of a substitute, in a 24-16 vote.

Nine bills were adopted as part of a package by unanimous consent:

  • H.R. 268, from Rep. Filemon Vela (D-Texas), to adjust the boundary of the Palo Alto Battlefield National Historic Park and authorize the donation of land to accommodate the addition to that historic park, as amended in the nature of a substitute.
  • H.R. 441, from Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), to convey certain property to the Tanana Tribal Council in Alaska.
  • H.R. 2512, from Rep. Ron Estes (R-Kan.), to designate the Chisholm National Historic Trail and the Western National Historic Trail as part of the National Trails System Act.
  • H.R. 2551, from Rep. John Curtis (R-Utah), to designate and adjust certain lands in Utah as components of the National Wilderness Preservation System toward enhancing the Bonneville Shoreline Trail.
  • H.R. 2793, from Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), to boost investments for conservation efforts in the areas surrounding the Mid-Atlantic Highlands of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York and Connecticut, as amended.
  • H.R. 4009, from Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), to establish a commemorative work on federal land in Washington, D.C., to remember the enslaved people who disembarked from a ship from Africa at the Georgetown Waterfront, as amended.
  • H.R. 4358, from Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.), to designate segments of the Little Manatee River as a component of the Wild and Scenic Rivers System, as amended in the nature of a substitute.
  • H.R. 4380, from Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas), to designate the El Paso Community Healing Garden National Memorial on the grounds of the deadly mass shooting in 2019.
  • H.R. 4404, from Rep. Darren Soto (D-Fla.), to designate segments of the Kissimmee River as a component of the Wild and Scenic Rivers System, as amended in the nature of a substitute.