The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee this morning passed a bill by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) giving security agents faster access to federal lands within 100 miles of Arizona’s border with Mexico, a measure that garnered strong bipartisan support despite opposition from environmental groups.
The panel also easily passed an amended bill by Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) to streamline federal permits for major projects like oil and gas pipelines, renewable energy installations, and an array of other types of infrastructure.
McCain’s Arizona borderlands bill would offer U.S. Customs and Border Protection "immediate access" to federal lands along the Mexican border for motorized patrols or the installation and maintenance of communications and surveillance equipment.
McCain this morning offered a substitute amendment to S. 750 that specified that the bill pertained to federal lands within 100 miles of the international border and added a provision requiring border security agents to protect natural and cultural resources to the "maximum extent practicable."
It passed by a voice vote, but drew "nays" from at least two senators, including Montana Democrat Jon Tester.
McCain said CBP faces delays and restrictions in accessing federal protected lands along the border, which creates safe zones for drug cartels and human smugglers. Agents must keep their vehicles on established dirt roads in wildlife refuges, while drug traffickers hike and drive where they please, he said.
"I have a border that’s not controlled, and I have wildlife refuges that are being destroyed," McCain said.
He cited a letter of support for the bill from the National Border Patrol Council, which represents 17,000 border patrol agents.
After some debate, the panel approved by voice vote a modified amendment by Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) that would add a sunset date of four years and order a Government Accountability Office study into borderland security, including how to improve existing memorandums of understanding with federal lands agencies.
Heitkamp also wanted to eliminate the bill’s definition of "border security," which calls for 100 percent "situational awareness" along the border, she said. Heitkamp said it is unclear how and when the government could achieve that goal and what it would cost.
But she agreed to limit her amendment to the sunset date and GAO study as long as the issue of defining border security gets further discussion.
Ranking member Tom Carper (D-Del.) said he has visited Arizona’s border with McCain and agreed that access is "a problem that needs to be addressed."
"The folks who are down there doing the work for us on the Border Patrol, they’re finding it hard to get into these areas," he said. "They don’t have the kind of flexibility and mobility that they need … we have to balance that against the need to protect the natural resources there, too."
Tester said the bill sets a bad precedent.
"This allows one agency to do whatever they want," Tester said. "I understand it’s for a great cause. But I think it’s a difficult precedent for me to support."
A coalition of environmental groups this week sent a letter to the committee urging opposition to McCain’s bill, which it argued "neither protects nor preserves public lands and would instead harm 10 million acres in Arizona." It argued that the Department of Homeland Security already has "unprecedented authority" to operate on federal public lands along the southwest border.
"Such a measure would lead to further damage on the ground and would undermine the increasingly effective and efficient coordination occurring between land management agencies and the Border Patrol and threaten the quality of life of border communities," said the letter, signed by dozens of national and local groups and provided by Defenders of Wildlife.
A 2011 GAO report found the Border Patrol’s access to some federal tracts along the southwest border "has been limited" by certain land-management laws, according to 17 of 26 patrol agents-in-charge.
But 22 of the 26 agents also said overall security levels had not been affected by land laws, and GAO cited factors such as the "remoteness and ruggedness of the terrain" as having a greater affect on agents’ mobility.
In a 15-1 vote, the committee also passed S. 280, by Portman and McCaskill, to create an interagency council to serve as a one-stop shop for major infrastructure projects that require federal permits, set deadlines and establish best practices for permitting reviews.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) was the lone "no" vote.
The panel by unanimous consent approved a substitute amendment by Portman containing changes he brokered with Carper and White House officials.
Portman said the bill is improved and has a better chance of receiving the president’s signature. It also carries the support of the nation’s business and labor leaders, he said.
"It’s not sexy, and it’s probably never going to be leading the evening news, because after all, it’s about permitting," McCaskill said, "but this is really what we should be doing."