Quick passage of a sweeping defense policy bill hit a snag on Wednesday over public lands, dividing Senate Republicans.
The $585 billion measure authorizing funds for the military includes several unrelated bills to expand wilderness areas in the West and expand the program streamlining oil and gas permits, a popular step with western state lawmakers.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., objected to their inclusion and promised to block any attempt to quickly finish the bill next week in the final days of the lame-duck session.
“A bill that defines the needs of our nation’s defense is hardly the proper place to trample on private property rights,” Coburn wrote in a letter to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. “Nor is it the place to restrict access to hunting, fishing and other recreational opportunities on massive swaths of taxpayer-supported lands.”
The House is expected to pass the bill on Thursday. Senate leaders hoped to finish it next week but need the consent of all senators to act quickly. Coburn, in his letter, said he would “utilize all procedural options at my disposal as a United States senator” to block such action.
Sen. James Inhofe, Coburn’s Oklahoma colleague and the top Republican on the Armed Service Committee, said he expected senators to work out their differences and pass the bill, which authorizes funds for ships, aircraft and military personnel while expanding U.S. military operations to counter Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.
In a closed-door GOP lunch, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski argued that the wilderness expansion and other changes create jobs, according to Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., a proponent of the legislation.
“It’s a real economic engine for some of the rural western states,” Heller said in an interview.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, joined Coburn in criticizing the legislation, complaining about the designation of 250,000 acres of new wilderness, in addition to 15 new national park units or expansions and three new wild and scenic river designations.
The provisions also include transferring management of a 140-square-mile national preserve in northern New Mexico to the National Park Service and making a land swap in Arizona that would clear the way for a much-disputed copper mine.
“With the military’s shrinking budget, it is offensive that this bill would be used to fund congressional pork. And, at a time where jobs are scarce and the federal government has removed billions of acres of land from productive use, Congress should not be restricting more than a half-million new acres,” Cruz said in a statement.
Caren Cowan, executive director of the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association, which represents thousands of ranchers in the state and has been a vocal critic of what she considers federal overreach in the West.
“This is a continuation of the governance by blackmail,” Cowan said. “The national defense authorization is vital to our nation and those who serve in the military. It should not be used as a bargaining chip for land grabs. Working on land packages in this manner is a disservice to the land and the people who enjoy it.”