WASHINGTON -- On its last day in session before the election, the Senate tied itself in knots over 41 polar bear carcasses that hunters want to bring home from Canada as big game trophies.
After punting tough decisions on far weightier issues like raising taxes and cutting spending, Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., insisted that the Senate address the wide-ranging sportsmen's bill before voting on must-pass legislation to prevent the government from shutting down at the end of next week.
Republicans resisted for a while Friday, contending the only reason Reid wanted the vote now on the bill long sought by hunters and sport fishermen was to benefit Democratic incumbent Jon Tester's re-election prospects in a tossup race in Montana that could determine which party runs the Senate next year.
"This isn't a campaign studio, It's the Senate," Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., complained on the Senate floor Friday. "We've got responsibilities to meet. Let's meet them. And leave the politics out of it for once."
The House had passed a similar bill in April that was co-sponsored by Rep. Denny Rehberg, Tester's Republican opponent in the Montana Senate race. In the end, Tester would get only a test vote as the Senate, yet again, punted another issue until after the election.
Tester's bill combines 19 measures favorable to outdoorsmen. In addition to dealing with the polar bear hides, it would allow more hunting and fishing on federal lands, let bow hunters cross federal land where hunting isn't allowed, encourage federal land agencies to cooperate with state and local authorities to maintain shooting ranges, exclude ammunition and tackle from federal environmental laws that regulate lead, boost fish populations and protect animal habitat.
Tester suggested that Friday's compromise allowing for a test vote but delaying a final one exemplifies why Congress has such a poor approval rating from voters.
"That might take some of the politics out of it and if we ever made a decision here without politics it would be an earth shattering day," Tester said. "This bill right here is a prime example of what is wrong in Washington, D.C. -- it's being held up for no reason whatsoever."
The polar bear provision would allow the 41 hunters --including two in Montana -- who killed polar bears in Canada just before a 2008 ban on polar bear trophy imports took effect to bring the bears' bodies across the border. The hunters involved were not able to bring the trophies home before the Fish and Wildlife Services listed them as a threatened species.
Tester said it would just allow a few people who have polar bear trophies stored in Canada to finally bring them home. "These polar bears are dead, they are in cold storage and we know exactly who they are," he said.
Michael Markarian of The Humane Society of the United States criticized the measure. "The cumulative impacts of incentivizing this killing over and over again are contrary to American conservation law," he said.
By MARY CLARE JALONICK