Political News

House passes sweeping conservation legislation with bipartisan support

Posted July 22, 2020 6:13 p.m. EDT

— The House voted on Wednesday to approve a sweeping and historic conservation and public lands bill that President Donald Trump has pledged to sign into law.

The measure -- the Great American Outdoors Act -- has already been passed by the Senate and will now go to the President's desk for his signature.

The legislation would fully and permanently fund a conservation program known as the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which was set up by Congress in the 1960s and has been chronically underfunded. The measure will require mandatory funding of the program at a level of $900 million annually. Funding for the program does not use taxpayer dollars. Instead it comes from revenues from offshore oil and gas royalty payments.

The legislation would also dedicate funding for backlogged maintenance projects on federal lands run by the National Park Service, the Forest Service and other agencies.

Congressional approval of the legislation represents a rare moment of bipartisan unity on Capitol Hill and comes at a time of national crisis as the country grapples with the devastating toll of the coronavirus pandemic and gears up for contentious negotiations over further relief to address the economic and public health fallout from the spread of the disease.

Congressional Democrats, including Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, have fought for permanent reauthorization and full funding of the LWCF for years, making the passage of the bill a major victory for Democrats.

"The stars aligned correctly this time," Grijalva said in an interview with CNN ahead of the vote on Wednesday. "This is a popular program, people want it, and I think regardless of party people are responding."

"To have it on the brink of being approved is personally very satisfying and -- worth the work," he said.

Approval of the measure also represents a victory for two Republican senators who pushed for its passage in the upper chamber and are facing competitive reelection races this year: Cory Gardner of Colorado and Steve Daines of Montana.

Gardner and Daines worked together, including meeting with Trump directly to make their case and win his support for the bill. Gardner and Daines secured a commitment from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to bring it to a vote and from the President to sign it into law.

"I think it's a response to a groundswell of public support that pushed it over the edge," Grijalva said of the drive to enact the legislation.

"It got politicized, and now it's seen as a political plus - if you don't support the Land and Water Conservation Fund then there's going to be a reaction on the part of the public," he said.

Gardner is fighting to keep his seat in a battleground state that Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton won in 2016 and where Democrats have recruited former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper to run against him.

While Montana is reliably in Republican hands for Trump's 2020 effort, Daines faces competition from another Democrat with a track record of winning statewide: current Gov. Steve Bullock.

Both Bullock and Hickenlooper unsuccessfully pursued 2020 presidential bids, before dropping out and later entering the Senate races in their respective states.

As Republicans fight to hold onto their Senate majority in 2020, keeping both of those seats could prove critical to that effort.

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