GOP infighting breaks out over conservation bill

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A leading Senate Republican says he doesn’t support a House GOP plan to reform a federal conservation program, leaving lawmakers without a clear path forward.

Sen. Richard BurrRichard BurrThe Trail 2016: Putting the past behind them The Hill's 12:30 Report Burr pledges to retire after one more Senate term MORE (R-N.C.), who has authored a bill to reauthorize the now-lapsed Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), said Tuesday that the House and Senate are “to some degree, at loggerheads” over the fund.

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House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob BishopRob BishopThe Hill's 12:30 Report GOP makes new push on wildfire bills Overnight Energy: House passes first Interior, EPA spending bill in seven years MORE (R-Utah) proposed a bill last week that would renew the program while giving states more control over the way the money is spent. Burr has pushed to renew the LWCF as is. 

“I respect the fact that [Bishop] finally put something out there,” Burr said in an interview Tuesday. “It doesn’t live in the spirit of why LWCF was created and I think the claims that he’s made just don’t hold water about how the LWCF has been used.”

Burr said lawmakers could work on changes to the program in a joint House and Senate conference committee but that his preference is renewing it rather than overhauling it, as Bishop has proposed.

“I think you can accomplish a lot in conference, but I certainly haven’t seen any willingness on their part to recognize that Land and Water Conservation Fund is the most successful federal program that we’ve had, and for 50 years, people have embraced it with confidence,” he said. “I’ve never found a reason to change a program that actually does that.”   

Bishop and other Western Republicans have criticized the LWCF as giving the federal government too much power to purchase new land.

When the fund was created in the 1960s, it directed about 60 percent of its money to state programs, but that balance has shifted in the federal government’s favor over time.

Bishop proposed a bill last week limiting the land purchases the federal government can make under the LWCF while funneling more money to state conservation programs, urban areas, and repair and maintenance accounts.

Conservation groups and many Democrats have come out against the House bill, which will be the subject of a hearing next week. 

Another Republican, Rep. Patrick Meehan (R-Pa.), criticized that bill this week, calling it a “radical departure for the LWCF.” Meehan has pushed to renew the program in its current form.

A Bishop aide dismissed an open-ended reauthorization of the LWCF, which Burr has supported. 

“Chairman Bishop has introduced draft language as a starting point to address a program that has gone adrift,” spokeswoman Julia Slingsby said Tuesday. 

“Chairman Bishop welcomes input from anyone and the debate that is to come, but ignoring its problems with a permanent reauthorization of the broken program is simply not going to happen.”

The conservation fund expired in September. While the fund is still active under the current federal spending resolution, its supporters say it needs a new federal charter if it’s to continue accepting new funding in the future.

Senators on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee reauthorized the program in an energy reform bill this summer, looking to split the fund more evenly between state and local programs. That bill awaits a vote in the full Senate. 

Action on the LWCF has stalled while senators address other issues. Burr blocked consideration of a chemical reform bill last month, pushing leadership to attach an LWCF amendment to the legislation. 

The program traditionally wins support from both Republicans and Democrats, and Burr said he hopes the Senate will be able to vote on the program at some point.

“Clearly LWCF — and members of Congress and the House and the Senate voting on a straight reauthorization — is scary to some, because they know that it would be supported,” he said.