Union Tribune

November 8, 2003

Forest legislation stalls amid lawmakers' procedural squabble


WASHINGTON Forest-thinning legislation that took center stage during the California wildfires has stalled in a squabble between Republicans and Democrats over how major bills are being drafted.

Senate Democratic leaders have balked at appointing negotiators to a conference committee that would work out differences between the Senate and House versions of the legislation, complaining they have been shut out of conference discussions on landmark energy and Medicare bills.

They fear the same thing will happen with the forest bill, thus scuttling the bipartisan compromise that helped free it from a Senate logjam.

"I believe whenever you lock out Democrats, whenever we don't have a full and open debate on issues of this import, the country suffers," said Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.

Republicans accused the Democrats of obstruction.

"It is wholly irresponsible for Democrats not to appoint conferees on this issue because they were not invited to meetings on other bills," said Brian Kennedy, a spokesman for Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Tracy.

The wildfires that raged around Southern California recently gave the controversial legislation enough momentum to pass the Senate after a long delay. Supporters say it will help prevent a repeat of the disaster by removing dead trees and other combustible vegetation from federal lands, particularly those near residential areas, and encourage similar projects on state and private property.

But environmental groups worry that the legislation will give the logging industry access to old-growth trees, and they object to its proposed limits on environmental reviews and legal challenges. Some experts also question whether the legislation would do much to prevent fires in areas dominated by chaparral and other brush.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who helped craft the Senate version of the bill, tried to broker a compromise this week. In a letter to Pombo and other Republican lawmakers, Feinstein and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., proposed "informal meetings" on the legislation.

"Once we have been able to work through our differences at these meetings, we believe we can readily come to agreement as to the best procedure for formally reconciling the House and Senate bills," they wrote.

Kennedy said "we're very open to having informal discussions," but a conference committee should be appointed first.