Senators yesterday introduced a new package of hunting, fishing, conservation and gun rights bills, a bipartisan measure that could benefit from the chamber’s new free-for-all amendments process.
The bill (S. 405) by Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) is backed by a familiar cadre of sportsmen’s and gun use groups running the political gamut from Trout Unlimited to the National Rifle Association.
It is similar to S. 2363, sponsored last Congress by Murkowski and former Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), a measure that carried similarly strong bipartisan support but fell victim last July to a flurry of controversial amendments that ultimately sunk its passage.
Senators were unable to agree on which nearly 100 amendments — including measures on gun control and wetlands protections that could have harmed vulnerable Democrats — to vote on. Then-Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) blocked unwanted proposals from the floor, leading 11 Democrats to join all Republicans in shutting the bill down.
But if last month’s rough-and-tumble debate on S. 1, the bill to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, is any indication, new Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) will not shy from bringing politically charged amendments to the floor.
The pipeline debate put senators on record on dozens of measures — everything from the reality of climate change to protections for the lesser prairie chicken.
"I was confident last year we had the votes," said Steve Kline, a lobbyist for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, a key backer of the new sportsmen’s bill.
A companion sportsmen’s package is expected to be introduced in the House in the coming weeks.
The Murkowski-Heinrich bill is co-sponsored by Sens. James Risch (R-Idaho), Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.).
It contains new measures that would protect the right to carry guns on U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lands and to carry permitted bows and crossbows through national parks. Another new provision would require the reporting of government payments stemming from lawsuits provided under the Equal Access to Justice Act and from the Judgment Fund, a provision that carries particular support among Western Republicans and public lands ranchers. The package also contains a new provision requiring federal lands agencies to identify lands that are inaccessible to hunters and anglers and develop plans to make them accessible.
Like past iterations of the bill, it has provisions to please a spectrum of interest groups.
TRCP said it was particularly pleased with provisions to improve access to public lands and to reauthorize the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) and the Federal Lands Transaction Facilitation Act (FLTFA), which provides for deficit-neutral land purchases.
For the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) and the National Rifle Association, groups that are more aligned with congressional Republicans than Democrats, the bill offers guarantees that U.S. EPA will not regulate lead in bullets or fishing tackle, a major priority for ammunition manufacturers and shooting enthusiasts.
NSSF also touted provisions to allow more Pittman-Robertson funds to build shooting ranges on public lands and to expand hunting, shooting and fishing access on Interior and Agriculture department lands.
"Its passage would be a significant accomplishment for the sportsmen’s community and for America," said Lawrence Keane, NSSF’s senior vice president and general counsel.
Trout Unlimited touted other provisions in its media statement, including reauthorization of NFWF and FLTFA, "two vital programs that help groups like Trout Unlimited work to improve fish and game habitat and sporting opportunity."
NFWF pairs federal funds with nonfederal dollars for habitat-improvement grants to groups including Trout Unlimited.
Bill backers said they expect the measure will be broken in two for hearings and markups before the Energy and Natural Resources and the Environment and Public Works panels and then reunited on the Senate floor.
"We certainly hope we can get this bill done in 2015 before the [election year] pressures of 2016," said TRCP’s Kline.
As with past iterations of the bill, pro-hunting Democrats are likely to see friendly fire from liberal Democrats who oppose the provision banning EPA regulation of lead in ammunition, as well as from some environmental groups that argue lead ammunition is hazardous to sensitive birds and humans who eat the animals those bullets shoot.
It may also garner opposition from pro-gun control Democrats, including Connecticut Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, who opposed the bill last summer because it lacked reforms such as background checks on all gun sales.