ANCHORAGE -- U.S. Sen. Frank Murkowski today succeeded in pushing forward a controversial measure that would reallocate federal offshore oil drilling revenues into parks and conservation work.
The Alaska Republican chairs the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and he was able to move the measure out of committee even though it had meager support from his fellow Republicans.
The bill, called the Conservation and Reinvestment Act, passed 13-7 with four Republicans joining all nine Democrats. The vote came after 11 hours of debate over five days.
``This is the most significant commitment of resources ever made to conservation by the Congress,'' Murkowski said.
Western Republicans and other critics vowed to continue fighting the bill, which they termed a federal land grab and ``pile of pork.''
The measure would create a $3 billion-a-year fund for 15 years to pay for an array of conservation activities, from restoring beaches to creating urban parks. The money would come from oil and gas leases, primarily in the Gulf of Mexico and off Alaska.
More than 5,000 national, regional and state organizations are supporting the measure because it will pump guaranteed sums of money into popular programs for 15 years. Every state would get something. But a third of the money would go to five states: Alaska, California, Texas, Louisiana and Florida.
Critics contend the measure would provide limited congressional say over most of the spending. They're also concerned about the federal government taking more land out of private ownership.
Mike Hardiman, a lobbyist for the American Land Rights Association and bill opponent, said critics would step up efforts to defeat the measure in the Senate.
``This is a $45 billion pile of pork,'' Hardiman said. ``We're going to fight this to the last ditch.''
Murkowski said he believes the measure has the 60 votes necessary to stop a filibuster.
Where the bill heads now was not immediately clear. Congress leaves Friday on a five-week break, and there will be only about four weeks of work remaining when it returns in September before recessing for the year.
Most of September will be devoted to passing mandatory 2001 spending bills.
This late in the congressional session, especially during a polarized presidential election year, the Senate leadership usually balks at bringing up such a controversial measure.
There had been some speculation that Murkowski could avoid the problem by going to work with fellow Alaskan Don Young on a compromise to be added to a last-minute spending bill.
Young chairs the House Resources Committee, and his version of the conservation bill cleared the House by a wide margin in May.
The conservation act has the general support of the Clinton administration, and differences between the Murkowski and Young bills are slight.
Murkowski said Monday he thinks the chances of avoiding the Senate floor are poor. That leaves Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott to decide whether he wants to eat up days of debate on a bill that probably half the Senate's Republican members oppose.
Lott already has indicated he was unlikely to do that.
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