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Hunting, fishing bill fails amid Senate gridlock, with Begich and Murkowski in middle

Nathaniel Herz

A hunting and fishing bill with bipartisan support failed in the U.S. Senate on Thursday amid election season political maneuvering — and Alaska’s senators were right in the middle.

Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski was the co-author of the Bipartisan Sportsmen’s Act, which failed when a bipartisan group of senators, including Murkowski, blocked a move by Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to close debate on the measure without allowing amendments.

Reid’s move was widely viewed as aimed at keeping a group of vulnerable Democratic senators up for re-election, including Sen. Mark Begich, from having to make tough votes on amendments that could have tightened or loosened gun control laws.

Begich was one of 38 Democrats who sided with Reid, lining up against all 45 senate Republicans, including Murkowski, and 11 other Democrats, many of whom wanted a chance to vote on gun control amendments.

In a phone interview, Begich said Friday that he would have been unafraid to vote on any of the gun control amendments. He said he disagreed with Reid’s move to close debate, known as cloture.

Begich said he ended up siding with the majority leader anyway because that’s what his fellow “pro-gun” Democrats were doing, and he didn’t want to give ammunition to the Republican opponents in his re-election campaign.

“I was contemplating all the way up until when I walked in there. And then I saw the list and I saw not one pro-gun Democrat voted (against cloture), and I thought: ‘Oh, that’s bad news,’” Begich said. “If a couple of pro-gun Democrats had voted no on cloture, I would have been right there. Because then my opponents wouldn’t pull out and say: ‘Oh, he’s hanging with those liberals who want gun control.”

Murkowski, in a phone interview, blamed Reid for the bill’s failure, saying he had “shut down the process” and been far too restrictive when deciding which amendments would be considered.

“The majority leader decided that he didn’t want to have the members of his caucus voting on hard issues,” Murkowski said. “Well, you know, we were elected to take up hard issues.”

She added that if Begich had really been unafraid to vote on amendments, “then he should have voted in a way that would have allowed him to press for amendments.”

Both Alaska senators supported the sportsmen’s bill, which had 26 Republican sponsors and 20 Democratic sponsors, including Begich.

The legislation also had backing from pro-gun and hunting groups like the National Rifle Association, as well as conservation groups like The Nature Conservancy.

It contained a wide swath of measures pertaining to hunting, fishing, and land management. One provision would have loosened rules requiring subsistence duck hunters to buy permits — rules that have been unwittingly broken by some Alaska Natives, according to leaders.

Another part of the bill would have reauthorized matching grants given to local governments, organizations, and private landowners for wetlands conservation.

A third would have established a policy that allows people to assume that federal lands controlled by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management are open for recreational hunting, fishing, and shooting unless they’re explicitly closed, and requires public notice any time managers want to close or restrict areas larger than 1,300 acres.

The bill — with the “bipartisan” in the title — “contained a lot of really good measures” and “really did seem to live up to its name,” said Katie McKalip, the director of media relations for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, a national hunting and fishing advocacy group that’s worked on Alaska issues and supported the legislation.

It was the potential amendments — more than 90 of which were ultimately filed — that brought the bill down.

They ranged from measures submitted by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who wanted to lift a Washington D.C. ban on semiautomatic weapons, to another sponsored by Connecticut’s two Democratic senators to bar people subject to temporary restraining orders from buying or possessing guns.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, even filed an amendment to bar the federal government from owning more than 50 percent of the land in any state. (That figure is about 60 percent in Alaska.)

In a press release after the failure of the bill, Begich blamed “some other senators” who try to avoid “tough votes,” adding: “I am not afraid to take tough votes.”

When asked about specific amendments, Begich said he would have supported a measure from Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., that would have toughened penalties for gun traffickers. While he wasn’t familiar with the language in Paul’s amendment loosening gun laws in Washington, D.C., Begich said he’d supported similar efforts by Paul in the past.

Begich added that Reid was partly responsible for the bill’s failure, and that the amendments should have been hashed out in committee — a step that Reid used procedural rules to bypass, according to a statement from Murkowski’s office.

But Begich said Republican Party leadership should also bear some of the blame for not doing a better job of restricting amendments to those that were more relevant to the core of the legislation. Begich said that some of the amendments even attempted to change U.S. foreign policy toward Iraq and Pakistan.

His press secretary later clarified that Begich was referring to Republican-sponsored measures to restrict aid to Palestine, and one that would have toughened immigration laws for children arriving at the border from Central American countries.

“Someone on the other side has to bring some reasonableness to this,” Begich said. “You can’t do the tango with one person.”

But Murkowski placed blame solidly with Reid, who she said had refused to allow a full committee review through his use of senate procedure. She added that she and Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., the sportsmen’s bill’s other author, had been willing to limit amendments to those that were relevant to hunting and sport fishing.

When the bill failed, Murkowski said she talked to Hagan and both used the same word to describe how they felt: “sick.”

“We can’t get a bipartisan package that was endorsed by members of both ends of the country, urban and rural — a bipartisan measure that we can’t get moving through the senate. What’s wrong with our process right now?” she said. “I tell you, I put this back at the feet of Harry Reid.”

Reid, in a statement posted on his website, blamed Republicans for blocking his move to force a vote on the bill, without any amendments.

“They’re so tangled up with the tea party here, tea party there, the people running for president. You know, they can’t decide on a list of amendments to bring before the body,” Reid said. “So what do they do? They block everything.”

McKalip, the media relations director for the hunting and fishing advocacy group, said she didn’t want to point fingers at either party for the bill’s failure. But she added the outcome was especially disappointing given that the measure had bipartisan support and seemed like a “slam dunk.”

“It’s predictable in a way because we’ve all been exposed to such Congressional dysfunction,” she said. “It’s amazing that those of us who work on policy issues have any kind of idealism remaining. Because the system certainly will make you a little bit of a cynic.”