House approves Arizona land swap bill after fight over Iran

The House on Wednesday approved legislation that would allow a land swap between a foreign-owned mining company and the U.S. government, which would allow the company to set up mining operations and extract copper discovered in Arizona.

Just before the final vote, Democrats argued that the bill should be altered because the company in question, Resolution Copper Mining LLC, is part-owned by Rio Tinto, which owns a stake in the Rossing uranium mine in Namibia with the Iran Foreign Investment Company (IFIC). Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) proposed changing the bill to prevent any land exchange with a company or affiliate connected with the IFIC.

"The Iran Foreign Investment Company is wholly owned by the Iranian regime, and last summer the Treasury Department added it to the list of Iranian entities in violation of sanctions law," Deutch said. "Quite simply, we are about to reward a company that partners with the Iranian regime to mine, of all things, the uranium it needs to become a nuclear-armed power."

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Republicans had no direct reply to the Democrats' charge, and in a brief response, Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) argued that nothing in the law would prevent the U.S. from enforcing sanctions laws.

"Let me be perfectly clear, and I'll say this as slowly as I can so that it can be understood," Hastings said. "This bill does not waive any economic sanction laws. All of those laws still stand."

The Democrat motion to recommit the bill to add the Iran language failed in a strict party-line 187-237 vote. The bill was approved immediately afterwards in a mostly party-line vote of 235-186 — in that vote, eight Republicans voted against the bill, and seven Democrats voted for it.

Under the legislation, H.R. 1904, Resolution Copper would give up nearly 5,350 acres of land, and get 2,422 acres on what is now the Oak Flat Campground, where the copper mine would operate. Republicans said during Tuesday's debate that the copper that could be extracted from the mine could supply up to a quarter of U.S. demand for the next 40 years.

But Democrats pointed out several problems aside from Resolution Copper's link to Iran. On Tuesday and Wednesday, they said there were no assurances that the copper extracted would be used in the U.S., and that it instead could be sold to China or anyone else.

They also questioned Republican estimates that thousands of U.S. jobs would be created by allowing the establishment of the mine. Several noted that Rio Tinto mining operations have used robotics, which would reduce the need for U.S. workers.

"Much of the work that's gong to be done in this mine is going to be done by robots," said Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.). "So there will be full employment for R2-D2 and for the Transformers, but the total number of jobs here, very speculative."

Republicans seemed to be in disbelief that Democrats would think most of the needed work would be done by robots.

"Does anyone honestly believe that passing this bill would create jobs only for an army of robots?" asked Rep. Dan Benishek (R-Mich.). "Are you kidding me? Robots?"

In Wednesday votes, the House also rejected three Democrat amendments that addressed some of the arguments they had against the bill. In a 189-233 vote, members killed language from Rep. Ben Lujan (D-N.M.), to exclude all Native American sacred and cultural sites from land conveyance.

In a 173-238 vote, the House killed language from Markey that would require Resolution Copper to pay an 8 percent royalty to the U.S. on all minerals produced in commercial quantities from the new mine.

And by a 182-240 vote, the House rejected language from Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) to require Resolution Copper to maintain any remote operation center in Arizona, seek to employ Arizonans, require all copper to stay in the U.S., and ensure that all mining equipment is made in the U.S.

With House passage, the bill moves to the Senate. If the strength of opposition from House Democrats is any sign, Senate Democrats may choose not to consider the bill at all. The White House had not issued a Statement of Administration Policy on the bill before the vote.

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