Republican senators are coming to the defense of congressional leaders who tucked an expansion of national parks, wilderness areas and drilling programs into a defense bill.

The provisions, which represent the most significant land package since 2009, have drawn a fierce backlash from conservatives, who see it as a massive expansion of federal land holdings that should have been dealt with in a stand-alone bill.

{mosads}While GOP senators acknowledged some discomfort with tacking the provisions onto the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) — a bill that has passed Congress for 52 straight years — they said it was a necessary step for getting them through Congress.

Some senators blamed Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), saying his refusal to let bills reach the floor gave them few opportunities to change the federal land system.

“It’s probably not the best way to do businesses, but it’s one of those situations where it’s the best vehicle to do something that needs to be done,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee who supports both the land deal and the defense bill. “So I’m OK with it.”

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said he doesn’t blame the House and Senate negotiators who stuck the bills together.

“Usually, I prefer to keep Defense authorization bills as clean as we can,” Hatch said. “But there have been a lot of problems with lands over the years. And with Democrats not allowing anything to come up, sometimes there are very few things that you can attach things to.”

The negotiated bill was unveiled last week and sailed through the House a few days later.

In addition to authorizing the Defense Department’s programs for a year, it would create 15 new national parks, mandate studies for eight more and designate hundreds of thousands of acres of wilderness. It would also expand a program to expedite oil and gas drilling permits on federal land, authorize a land swap to develop a massive copper mine in Arizona and improve the efficiency of grazing permits.

Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Tom 

Coburn (R-Okla.) blasted the land package, characterizing it as an expansive land grab by the government.

Cruz pushed his colleagues to vote against the defense bill, and Coburn said he would object to unanimous consent for the legislation.

While Cruz and Coburn have sway with Republican senators, their efforts might not go far.

“This is not a perfect process,” said Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), an Energy and Natural Resources Committee member who helped write the bipartisan package of land and energy provisions.

“Harry Reid has essentially shut down the Senate and interfered with our ability to actually legislate in a responsible way,” he said.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), ranking member of the energy panel and its incoming chairwoman, said the strategy has precedent. The most recent significant land package in 2009 was also attached to a Defense authorization, she said.

“Coming from a Western state, when 60 percent of your state, plus, is owned by the federal government, you just can’t go to a real estate attorney and ask for help with a land conveyance. It’s an act of Congress,” Murkowski said.

“I think many of our friends back here on the East Coast, where you don’t have these public lands, fail to understand and appreciate that.”

Murkowski said the land package includes years of proposals that have gone through the Energy panel, and the entire set has bipartisan support.

“Historically, it has been tough for individual lands bills to move through the process, and it’s simply because they don’t rise to that level of concern, where you have 100 senators demanding that it take up time,” she said.

“Unfortunately, because of the way that Sen. Reid runs the Senate, we aren’t given that opportunity,” said Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.). “And that’s the problem.”

Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) said he supports the land package overall but said it still might not get his vote.

“I don’t think it’s the best process to put it on the NDAA bill,” he said. “I have problems with the NDAA bill otherwise, and so I may or may not be voting for it.”

Tags Defense bill Harry Reid John Barrasso John Hoeven Lindsey Graham Lisa Murkowski Mike Crapo Orrin Hatch Ted Cruz
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