House Republicans leaders are not expected to bring up a resolution pushed by Democrats that condemns the armed protesters occupying a national wildlife refuge in Oregon.
A spokesman for Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said "at this point we have nothing scheduled." Western lawmakers were quick to dismiss the proposal and warn it could inflame tensions.
"I think the most important thing right now is not to throw gas on the fire [by calling up the resolution], it is to get the protesters to leave without any additional problems," said Republican Rep. Greg Walden, whose sprawling, eastern Oregon district includes the remote Malheur National Wildlife Refuge that has been occupied by armed militia men since the weekend.
Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) also dismissed the resolution, adding he does not support violence but blames the standoff on overly aggressive land policies by the federal government.
"This did not have to take place. If the Department of Interior was concerned about people instead of dogma this situation would not have occurred," he said.
Bishop said the standoff in Oregon is part of a "continuing story" about how the federal government has mismanaged lands in the West and does not stand out as unique. He said special hearings are not expected on it.
The Congressional Western Caucus made similar remarks in a statement yesterday, stopping short of condoning the occupiers’ actions but saying they understand "their frustration with increasingly heavy-handed federal agencies that continue to violate the rights of hardworking American farmers and ranchers."
The liberal Center for Western Priorities did not discount some dissatisfaction among ranchers and other land owners with the government but said it’s not widespread. It noted in a statement yesterday that a majority of westerners see a role for the federal government in land management that would otherwise force "massive costs" onto state and local governments.
The back and forth came as Democrats, including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), got behind a resolution yesterday that urges a peaceful ending to the Oregon standoff (E&ENews PM, Jan. 7). They said their goal is to show the threat of violence cannot be used to meet political goals.
Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the ranking member on the Natural Resources Committee who wrote the resolution, said he has 60 Democratic sponsors but no interest from the GOP despite it being written in a "tepid way" to attract bipartisan support.
"If it were climate change advocates who had armed themselves and took over the refuge and protested not enough is being done on climate change I think the reaction would be a lot sterner and much different," he added.
Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle did find common ground in suggesting the standoff should lead to Congress examining mandatory minimum sentences.
The occupation stems from frustration over a federal ruling that sent two members of the Hammond family back to prison this week to serve five years for arson on federal lands. A federal judge had earlier offered far more lenient sentences than they had completed, but a circuit court ruled the lesser sentences were not allowed under federal sentencing guidelines and ordered the ranchers back to jail.
Walden said he’s already talked to some lawmakers, including Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), about legislation to eliminate the mandatory minimum sentence for arson on federal lands, although he said it would not be retroactive to the Hammonds.
Bishop agreed with the need for changes in sentencing guidelines, saying an accidental burn is not the same as arson.
Congress and the Obama administration have been working on legislation that would call for a broad overhaul of criminal sentencing guidelines that could eliminate mandatory minimums for nonviolent, drug offenses. Backers say it would help ease prison overcrowding and stress longer sentences do little to prevent recidivism or cure addiction.
Grijalva called it "ironic" that conservatives who once sought the mandatory minimums as part of the war on drugs are now open to changing them. He said to get bipartisan support the legislation would need to look at a wide range of sentencing changes, not just those related to federal lands.