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Murkowski sportsmen's bill picks up support, but politics may hamper passage

By Phil Taylor, E&E reporter

Published: Friday, August 9, 2013

An Alaskan senator's bill to promote hunting and fishing opportunities on federal lands has picked up the support of some of her high-ranking Republican colleagues, though Democrats remain on the sidelines.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski's S. 1335 includes a bipartisan measure to require the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service to facilitate hunting, fishing and target shooting on hundreds of millions of acres of federal lands.

Other provisions would reauthorize a revenue-neutral land acquisition program, allow duck hunting permits to be sold online, reauthorize a wetlands conservation program and ensure that a portion of conservation funding supports sportsmen's access.

Murkowski yesterday said the bill is now co-sponsored by Sens. John Thune (R-S.D.) and Jim Risch (R-Idaho), the co-chairman and vice chairman, respectively, of the Congressional Sportsmen's Caucus, as well as Sens. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), David Vitter (R-La.), Rob Portman (R-Ohio), John Boozman (R-Ark.) and Richard Burr (R-N.C.).

Murkowski said of Thune and Risch: "They have shown tremendous leadership in their key roles with the Congressional Sportsmen's Caucus, and their support validates that we have the right combination of bills to move this package through the Senate and House."

The Senate in mid-July placed the bill directly on the chamber's calendar, meaning it could be brought up for consideration at any time once lawmakers return from August recess.

But despite the bill's bipartisan nature -- all but three of its measures were included in a sportsmen's package by Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) last Congress -- Democratic support is conspicuously absent, and it's not completely clear why.

"We hope they will join us and make this a bipartisan bill," Robert Dillon, a Murkowski spokesman, said of the Alaskan's bill.

They may be waiting for a separate sportsmen's package to be introduced by Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), who is the Democratic co-chair of the CSC and happens to face a tough re-election bid in 2014.

The advancement of Tester's sportsmen's bill (S. 3525) last September is believed to have burnished his re-election bid against former Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.), and passage of a Hagan-sponsored package would be expected to have a similar effect at the polls (E&ENews PM, Sept. 21, 2012).

Also, Murkowski's introduction of her sportsmen's package in mid-July took at least some pro-hunting Democrats by surprise, since it had widely been assumed that Hagan would introduce a version of Tester's sportsmen's package this Congress. Some said Democrats felt Murkowski beat them to the punch.

"Senator Hagan is working in a bipartisan manner to craft a sportsmen's package that can ultimately pass the Senate," said Hagan spokeswoman Hannah Smith. "She wants to work with the co-chairs of the Congressional Sportsmen's Caucus and other senators who have proposals on a bill that works for sportsmen and women and can get 60 votes."

Smith did not say whether Hagan planned to co-sponsor Murkowski's bill.

Tester's sportsmen's bill last Congress was co-sponsored by Democratic Sens. Max Baucus of Montana, Mark Begich of Alaska, Michael Bennet of Colorado, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Joe Manchin of West Virgina, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, Tom Udall of New Mexico, Mark Warner of Virginia, Hagan and then-Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska -- but no Republicans.

Democrats may also favor Hagan's bill if it includes some provisions of the Tester package that were left out of the Murkowski bill.

Those include measures to increase the price of waterfowl hunting permits -- which are widely supported by hunters -- and reauthorizations of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and programs supporting migratory birds, international wildlife and habitat restoration.

Cynics say politics played a role in the defeat of Tester's bill last year and could play a role again in the 113th Congress.

While a final vote on Tester's bill was delayed until after the November elections, Republicans blocked its passage due to a budget technicality involving the duck stamp provision.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), ranking member of the Budget Committee, said at the time that Congress could no longer "lie to the American people" by claiming to be fiscally responsible while repeatedly voting to waive the Budget Control Act of 2011.

While some environmental groups will likely oppose a provision in Murkowski's package to protect the use of lead bullets and fishing tackle, sportsmen and conservation groups have yet to raise any substantive concerns about the overall bill.

A coalition of 26 sportsmen's groups in late July sent a letter to Murkowski and Manchin praising their introduction of S. 170, a bill to elevate hunting, fishing and sport shooting as a component of the Forest Service and BLM's multiple-use mandates and which forms the key part of Murkowski's larger sportsmen's package.

S. 170 differs in key ways from a companion bill in the House sponsored by Rep. Dan Benishek (R-Mich.) that has been opposed by wilderness advocates.

The Murkowski bill "recognizes the heritage of fishing, hunting, and recreational shooting on Federal public lands and waters and the economic benefits that they generate for the American economy," said the letter, whose signatories included the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.

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