Following the mid-term elections Congress has now entered the lame duck session for the 117th Congress. There remain a handful of must-pass bills before the end of the year, and BHA is working to use these vehicles as an opportunity to advance policies that would conserve our public lands, waters and wildlife.
Following the Nov. 8 midterm elections, though the exact final count is unclear in either chamber, the Senate will remain controlled by the Democratic Party while the House of Representatives was narrowly flipped to Republican control. A divided Congress can provide opportunities for bipartisan policymaking, like the John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act in 2019 and the Great American Outdoors Act in 2020.
The makeup of the Senate will largely remain the same after the start of the new Congress in January. An early December runoff election in Georgia will determine whether the chamber has a 50-50 split or the Democrats win an outright majority, which would result in them gaining additional representation on committees.
In the House the Republican Party will now control the congressional agenda and committee leadership for the first time in four years. Both Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and current House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) faced intra-party challenges to their leadership. McCarthy could struggle to find the necessary votes for his bid to be Speaker of the House, as several members of the razor-thin Republican majority have stated their unwillingness to support him. An enormous turnover in leadership has taken place within the House Democratic Caucus, with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-SC) stepping back from their leadership roles. As House Democrats enter the 118th Congress in the minority their new leadership is expected to be Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), Rep. Katherine Clark (D-MA) and Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-CA), respectively.
End-of-Year Legislative Opportunities and Priorities
With must-pass legislation still pending before Congress, opportunities remain in the final weeks of the 117th Congress to secure wins for conservation supported by sportsmen and women. The Senate version of the National Defense Authorization Act has yet to pass, as well as an annual funding bill, which must be done prior to Dec. 16 when the current funding extension ends. These pieces of legislation can provide vehicles for outstanding BHA priorities.
BHA is working diligently with champions on Capitol Hill to get what legislative priorities we can across the finish line. The following policies, ranked in order of expected likelihood, are among those being considered for potential action in the lame duck session.
Chronic Wasting Disease Research and Management Act – Passed by the House last December with overwhelming margins (393-33), this legislation has languished in the Senate since January. The Senate is currently completing a process for non-controversial bills known as a “hotline.” Leadership on both sides of the aisle circulates the bill, and if no senators object, it is considered passed. The bill has already cleared the Democratic side of the aisle and is in the process of being circulated by the Republican caucus.
Recovering America’s Wildlife Act – Passed by the House in June of this year after receiving a vote of 15-5 in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, RAWA has yet to be considered by the full Senate. Along with our partners we are working to ensure RAWA is included in any end-of-year omnibus package, which will likely coalesce around the Dec. 16 budget deadline.
America’s Outdoor Recreation Act – This package, unanimously advanced by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in May of this year, has been a significant priority for Chairman Manchin (D-WV) and Ranking Member Barrasso (R-WY).
A public lands package also may come together if additional Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee jurisdiction priorities such as outdoor recreation or forestry legislation are added to a must-pass vehicle. Ranking Member Barrasso and Ranking Member Westerman (R-AR) of the House Natural Resources Committee remain stalwartly opposed to advancing public lands conservation legislation, even bills that have left committee with bipartisan support. Bills that have been marked up and passed out of committee in a bipartisan fashion that may yet somehow find a path forward include the following:
- Cerro de la Olla Wilderness Establishment Act – Led by Sen. Heinrich (D-NM) and Rep. Leger Fernandez (D-NM). This would designate 13,000 acres of wilderness in the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument.
- M.H. Dutch Salmon Greater Gila Wild and Scenic River Act – Led by Sen. Heinrich (D-NM). This would protect more than 400 miles of waterways in the Gila National Forest, establishing these waters as wild and scenic.
- Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument Expansion Act – Led by Sen. Padilla (D-CA) and Rep. Garamendi (D-CA). This would expand the existing national monument by including nearly 4,000 acres of adjacent BLM lands.
- Oregon Recreation Enhancement Act – Led by Sen. Wyden (D-OR). This would establish two new national recreation areas encompassing 128,000 acres, expand the Wild Rogue Wilderness by nearly 60,000 acres, and permanently protect nearly 100,000 acres of public lands near Kalmiopsis Wilderness Area by codifying the existing 20-year mineral withdrawal.
- Smith River National Recreation Area Expansion Act – Led by Sen. Merkley (D-OR) and Rep. Huffman (D-CA). This would expand the existing Smith River National Recreation Area by 58,000 acres in addition to designating 74 miles of waterways as components of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System.
- Ruby Mountains Protection Act – Led by Sen. Cortez Masto (D-NV). This would withdraw nearly 350,000 acres of the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest and Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge from oil and gas leasing, protecting critical winter range for Nevada’s largest mule deer herd.
Additionally, the Protecting America’s Wilderness and Public Land Act remains a significant priority for BHA, and if a large enough public lands package were to come together it would be a critical component. Passed by the House of Representatives five times this Congress, this monumental legislation would designate approximately 1.5 million acres of public land as wilderness, add approximately 1,200 river miles to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System and withdraw approximately 1.2 million acres from mineral leasing and oil and gas development. BHA’s chapters have supported the community driven proposals this legislative package has included from Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Oregon and Washington.