Tangled in an ethics scandal years ago, land-swap bill now called a job creator

Legislation that was tangled in an ethics scandal years ago has suddenly become front and center in the debate over job creation.

A Republican lands-exchange bill that passed the House on Wednesday on a nearly party-line vote faces obstacles in the Democratic-led Senate. But this measure has overcome many hurdles in the past.

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The proposed land exchange between the federal government and an international mining conglomerate would carve thousands of acres out of the surrounding national forest. But it’s land that Apache Indians consider sacred.

Backers of the bill note that the land is one of the world’s largest untapped copper deposits which could supply a quarter of America’s annual demand for more than 50 years.

Shortly after the House vote, both of Arizona's senators called on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to bring the proposal to the floor.

A spokesman for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said it would be “irresponsible” of the upper chamber not to pursue the deal that is estimated to produce 3,700 jobs in the Grand Canyon State.

“As the bill now moves to the Senate, we will do everything we can to ensure its swift, successful consideration,” Sens. McCain and Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) said in a statement.  “It’s our sincere hope that Majority Leader Reid and his fellow Senate Democrats will join us in supporting this real jobs bill and pass it right away. Arizonans can’t wait.”

Reid’s office declined to comment for this article.

Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) — the sponsor of the bill and the congressman credited for rallying support around it — said the House vote Wednesday puts pressure on the upper chamber.

The House vote "really ups the tempo and the fever into the Senate that this is something real,” Gosar told The Hill.

Gosar said the Senate could take up the bill alone or attach it to a larger legislative package. In 2010, Gosar defeated then-Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Ariz), whose effort to pass her version of the legislation fell short.

Democrats are expected to target Gosar in the 2012 campaign, and getting his bill signed into law would likely bolster his reelection prospects.

Gosar’s bill calls for the federal government to swap 2,422 acres in southeast Arizona in exchange for 5,344 acres of land from a mining company, Resolution Copper, a subsidiary of two mining companies, Rio Tinto and BHP-Billiton.

The bill’s first introduction into Congress came in 2005. Since then, it made its way out of committee only once in the Senate and had never received a floor vote – until now.

Supporters of the bill said there was a period where lobbying for the measure halted as former Rep. Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.), the first to introduce the proposal, was investigated and indicted by the Justice Department for a number of corruption charges. His trial is ongoing.

Prosecutors have alleged that Renzi proposed a deal that would get the Arizona land deal through Congress if a portion of his business associate’s land was included in the exchange. He didn’t seek reelection in 2008, and has denied wrongdoing. 

The legislation has since resurfaced amid the nation’s intense debate on job creation.

President Obama has been traveling the country in recent weeks touting his $447 billion American Jobs Act and criticizing the GOP’s lack of a counter proposal. In two news conferences, Obama challenged the press to find the Republican plan.

McCain and others in the Senate released the Jobs Through Growth Act, a conglomerate of bills the GOP supports. And in the House, the leadership has been touting “the forgotten 15” — 15 bills that they brand as job creation legislation.

The land deal has been dubbed the 16th on that list.

“This is 16,” Gosar said. “This is magical number 16.”

Aside from the legacy of Renzi, the bill also has other environmental and Native American cultural hurdles. Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva (D), who has been the most vocal critic of the measure in his home state, said Wednesday on the House floor that the proposal is a triple threat.

“It will rob Native people of their heritage,” Grijalva said. “It will rob local people of their water. And it will rob the American people of their money.”

In a dissenting view when the legislation was reported out of committee, Democratic critics questioned where the mining company will receive it’s 40,000 acre feet of water per year that is estimated to be used in the mine Resolution Copper plans to open on the exchanged land.

House floor debate also focused on royalties the U.S. should get from the estimated $60 billion profit that could be made from the copper mine. Finally, Grijalva said the bill would waive certain environmental and Native American protections. A portion of the government land to be exchanged is a culturally sensitive place for the Apache Tribe. 

The U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, both of whom have a stake in the land exchange, came out against the proposal at a committee hearing in June for similar reasons. 

Gosar called himself an environmentalist and said he has lived his whole life with Native Americans. He said Resolution Copper would have to comply with all environmental regulations after the land deal is made. 

“To say that none of the environmental things are applicable to this is an outright lie,” Gosar said. “And that is the way it should be called. When you bring up a fact that you’ve misinformed the public, you are a liar. [Resolution Copper] is subject to every environmental law we have on the books.”