Senate moves toward preserving public lands, and political careers

(Erin Schaff | The New York Times) Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Jan. 29, 2020. Despite some resistance within their ranks, Republicans are pushing a popular public lands bill that could help endangered colleagues, with an eye toward protecting their majority in November.

Washington • Gathered with a few Senate colleagues and President Donald Trump in the Roosevelt Room of the White House back in February, Sen. Cory Gardner gazed up at a portrait of the room’s eponymous president in his Rough Rider regalia and saw an opening to change Trump’s mind.

Hoping to capitalize on the president’s yearning for flashy achievements, Gardner, a Colorado Republican, told Trump that passage of a public lands bill that his administration and many members of his party opposed would be the biggest conservation accomplishment since Theodore Roosevelt in the early 1900s created an iconic system of parks, refuges and forests set aside for public use and enjoyment. To bolster his argument, Gardner showed the president a picture of a striking new land acquisition along the rim of the Black Canyon of Gunnison National Park that was made possible through the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a chronically shortchanged account that Gardner and others want to guarantee is filled each year.

“That is beautiful,” Trump responded, according to Gardner, reversing on the spot his plan to gut the fund and oppose the bill. “Put it on my desk and I will sign it.”

After decades of frustration over low levels of funding, the nation’s conservation community is on the brink of realizing a long-held goal — legislation that would assure that federal money is available for the preservation of public lands. That is thanks to a desire among Republicans to protect what they consider two worthy assets of their own: the jobs of Gardner and Sen. Steve Daines of Montana, who was also in the Roosevelt Room meeting and brought pictures of Montana projects.

[Read more: BLM hands over property to Utah for local, state control]

The two incumbents are at real risk of losing their seats in November — and possibly taking the Senate majority with them — so Republicans are hoping to give them a boost with a major legislative win in the coming days. Doing so has required an about-face by the president and the grudging cooperation of some Republicans who have long opposed the measure on principle, believing it adds too much to the soaring deficit. The legislation cleared a procedural hurdle Monday by a lopsided vote, 80-17, in an indication that it is headed for passage this month.

Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who is eager to hold on to his position as majority leader after November’s elections, has gotten behind the bill, which would fully and permanently fund the $900 million annual account for acquiring and improving public lands, despite the reservations of his Republican colleagues. He is always careful to credit the two Western senators for the measure that he describes in glowing terms.

“I’m very grateful to our colleagues from Montana and Colorado for shepherding this legislation,” McConnell said Monday as the Senate opened debate on the bill. “I’m proud of the stand they have taken in support of our nation’s natural wonders.”

It is a mark of how determined McConnell is to see the measure through that he is willing to advance a bill that splits Senate Republicans — the kind of intramural division that he is usually keen to avoid. But both Gardner and Daines are in very difficult races in a tough year.

Daines is facing a popular Democratic governor, Steve Bullock, and Gardner is likely to face John Hickenlooper, a well-liked former governor. The legislation is the type of achievement that both can celebrate back home. Given their alliance with Trump, neither senator is likely to win the endorsement of national environmental groups, but Republicans hope the lands measure will help them score points with voters who relish the great outdoors.

In fact, the bill is known as the Great American Outdoors Act. It not only requires that the allotted dollars go to the Land and Water Conservation Fund, created in 1965, but would also allocate $9.5 billion over five years to attack a persistent backlog of maintenance in the national parks.

Though some Senate Republicans have issues with its cost, the measure has broad bipartisan support both there and in the House, as well as among hundreds of national and local environmental groups that have long been unhappy about Congress’ diverting money from oil and gas drilling to other purposes. The account has been fully funded only twice in its history and last year received about half of its limit, though that amount was still the highest in 15 years.

Activists acknowledge that electoral considerations are playing a significant role in building momentum for the legislation, but they are more than happy to have the help.

“Protecting public lands is good policy and good politics,” said Tiernan Sittenfeld, the senior vice president for government affairs at the League of Conservation Voters.

With their majority in peril and the nation in crisis, Republicans are emphasizing their clout whenever they can. They regularly report back to constituents about what they are delivering in terms of state aid in response to the pandemic. And Trump has been quick to play up their work.

In recent White House remarks on federal efforts to produce a coronavirus vaccine, Trump singled out Daines for praise, saying he wanted to “especially” thank him for his work on securing money for research. McConnell regularly mentions the work of Sen. Susan Collins of Maine on the Paycheck Protection Program, the popular small-business loan initiative created by the stimulus bill, and occasionally throws in Gardner and Daines, along with Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina, another endangered Republican, for good measure.

Sometimes the efforts can backfire. When Trump proudly tweeted in April that he was sending Colorado 100 ventilators at Gardner’s request, both were castigated for short-circuiting the supply chain and allowing 400 of the 500 machines that had been secured by the state to be diverted. When Gardner threatened to block a Memorial Day recess to keep the Senate in session to take up pandemic legislation, he was hammered as weak-kneed when he relented. He was quick to note, though, that he did so only after securing McConnell’s assurance that he would get a vote on the lands bill.

“I was going to get this done come hell or high water,” said Gardner, who insisted that while the legislation might be coming at an opportune political moment, he has been working on it for years. “This isn’t about me. I look at this as a huge accomplishment for Colorado.”

Democrats argue that McConnell has commandeered a top priority of theirs to benefit his endangered members, using the Senate floor — which they say he has otherwise transformed into a legislative graveyard — for political advantage. But they scoff at the notion that the lands bill will rescue embattled Republican senators.

The measure has a few remaining hurdles. Some Republicans do not want the spending for the national parks piled on the deficit. The bill might also be a magnet for amendments related to civic unrest about systemic racism in policing, since it is the first piece of legislation to be considered since mass demonstrations against law enforcement abuse erupted across the country. And Senate attendance might be an issue, since multiple senators were absent last week because of the coronavirus pandemic, and the sponsors need all the bill’s backers to turn up.

But the outlook for the legislation is good. Besides the obvious politics, other factors are working in the bill’s favor. Its sponsors note that the pandemic has focused public attention on the need for public space for outdoor recreation, and that the park maintenance aspect alone will provide tens of thousands of jobs in communities that have been hit hard by the loss of tourism.

“A window opened and we have to take advantage of it,” said Tom Cors, a government relations director at the Nature Conservancy. “We might never have all these right conditions come together again.”