WASHINGTON - Senators staved off an effort Thursday to gut landmark conservation legislation that would set aside $3 billion a year to buy land, restore coastlines and protect wildlife.
''We've made some progress, but we've got a lot more to make,'' said Energy and Resources Committee Chairman Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska.
The committee is to continue work on the measure Friday. But Thursday's vote against an amendment by Sen. Don Nickles, R-Okla., demonstrated that its supporters have gained ground against critics who say it would prompt a federal land grab.
The bill would create a $3 billion-a-year fund for 15 years to pay for an array of conservation activities, from restoring beaches to creating urban parks and paying for federal and state land purchases. The money would come from oil and gas leases, primarily in the Gulf of Mexico and off Alaska.
The White House supports the bill and the House overwhelmingly approved a similar measure in May. Unlike the House version, the Senate bill would require Congress to vote on each land purchase.
''This won't be some unfettered slush fund for the administration,'' said Murkowski, who worked with Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., to add the provision.
The bill would provide $450 million a year for federal land purchases and another $450 million for states to buy property. The remaining money would be spent on conservation programs, but only if Congress spends at least $450 million for federal purchases.
''By linking all of our rafts together, we can assure funding of programs that didn't receive funding under the regular appropriations process,'' Bingaman said.
Despite inducements such as doubling the payments to local governments that replace taxes for federal land, Western Republicans criticized the government for mismanaging land it already owns, based on maintenance backlogs at parks and disputes over how forests and rangeland are used.
''Under the surface of everything - hidden on the dark side of government - is that government ownership of land has not been all that successful,'' said Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont.
Nickles' amendment would have required Congress to vote on all $3 billion in spending each year, rather than just the $450 million in federal land purchases. That would defeat the goal of dedicating money for conservation programs that historically lose out in budget debates.
The vote against it was 11-8, with Murkowski and Peter Fitzgerald, R-Ill., joining Democrats.
The bill is H.R. 701.
On the Net: The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee is at http://www.senate.gov/(tilde)energy.