May 10, 2012
by Phil Taylor
A Republican chairman is asking House leaders to delay consideration of a controversial border security bill so he can address concerns from Democrats and Hispanic members.
Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), chairman of the Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands, said he plans to meet with as many Democrats as he can before the House takes up his bill (H.R. 1505), which would exempt the Department of Homeland Security from dozens of conservation laws along a 100-mile swath of the nation's Mexican and Canadian borders.
"I asked them to slow it down so I'd have a lot of time to do some retail work with other members before it comes out on the floor," Bishop told E&E Daily, "especially with Democrats so that they understand this is a policy issue and that I'm not after the publicity."
He did not specify when the bill will come to the floor. Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the ranking member on Bishop's panel, said he has heard that a vote will be called in June.
The bill is expected to pass the Republican-led chamber, though a great unknown is how many Democrats will support the measure. No Democrats voted for the bill at a Natural Resources Committee markup last October.
Bishop said he intends to meet with Democrats on the Natural Resources Committee, Blue Dog Democrats throughout the chamber and Hispanic members.
"I'm going to the Hispanic community to recognize that, in all sincerity, if there is ever to be an immigration bill passed, the first thing you need is to honestly say you can control the border," Bishop said. "Otherwise, you'll never get rid of the anger and anxiety that makes the issue impossible to solve."
Bishop has long argued that federal lands along the Mexican border have become havens for illegal immigrants and drug smugglers in large part because the U.S. Border Patrol is restricted by land management agencies.
His bill would exempt the Department of Homeland Security from the National Environmental Policy Act, National Historic Preservation Act, Wilderness Act and Endangered Species Act, among many others, which he argued have unduly hindered security operations at national parks, monuments and other protected lands.
The proposal is opposed by the Obama administration, has riled conservationists and sportsmen and has even been featured prominently in the race for U.S. Senate in Montana, where it is co-sponsored by Rep. Denny Rehberg (R) but vehemently opposed by Sen. Jon Tester (D) (E&E Daily, Oct. 26, 2011).
Bishop yesterday said opposition to the bill is misguided and that it will reduce the impacts inflicted by illegal immigrants who pay no mind to the environment.
"If you do nothing, you're still turning over enormous swaths of land to the drug cartels [that] don't care about the Endangered Species Act, [that] don't care about wilderness designations," he said. "They drive over it anyway."
A Government Accountability Office report in fall 2010 found that while a majority of Border Patrol agents said activities have been delayed or restricted as a result of land management laws, almost all said the overall security status of their patrol area is not affected.
Bishop said delays are indefensible nonetheless. "The Border Patrol shouldn't have to wait at the border for a horse to arrive when they were in hot pursuit," he said. "The administration wants to say everything is working nicely. It's not."
Officials from the departments of the Interior and Agriculture testified that cooperation among border agencies -- including those responsible for security and land management -- has greatly improved since 2006, when a memorandum of understanding was signed among DHS, Interior and USDA seeking to strike the proper balance between federal priorities.
Bishop will not be the only one courting fence-sitting Democrats, said Grijalva, who said he is gearing up for "a real hard fight" to ensure his colleagues do not defect.
In addition, a handful of sportsmen, landowners and a farmer from border areas in Arizona and Montana are lobbying congressional offices this week in opposition to the bill.
The group, which is hosted by the nonprofit conservation group Sky Island Alliance, is scheduled to meet with the offices of Democratic Sens. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, Patty Murray of Washington, Dianne Feinstein of California and Tester, as well as with Grijalva and the committee staff.
"The group ... contends that this legislation would allow the Department of Homeland Security to run roughshod over ranching and farming operations and would remove any incentive for the agency to work with landowners and border-area communities," said Steve Koenigsberg, a spokesman for the delegation.
Natural Resources Committee Democrats in a dissenting report said the bill's true purpose is to use border security as a pretense to roll back more than a century of environmental protections for Americans living along the borders.
"The real problem of border enforcement is one of manpower, budgets, economic incentives and difficult terrain," Democrats on the committee wrote. "This bill addresses none of these concerns."