by Matt Gouras
U.S. Sen. Jon Tester said Tuesday his compromise plan to both increase logging and expand wilderness still has a chance to clear Congress this year — a move that could be more critical for the legislation as hopes dimmed that it could clear a GOP-controlled House next year.
The Democrat said he is looking for ways to attach the legislation to other bills that could clear this year’s lame duck session. He said he has the backing of the Obama administration through the U.S. Forest Service and key party leaders in Congress.
“We’ve got folks on board. It’s just a matter of getting it done,” Tester said in an interview. “I think if we can attach it to another bill, we are OK.”
Tester’s bill would create new wilderness in parts of Montana, while increasing logging requirements and establishing permanent recreation areas. He said the bill will be a big boost to the logging industry and give motorized users some certainty with designated areas — while giving environmentalists increased protections they desire in other parts of the forest.
It was brought to him by loggers and environmentalists who wanted to break through years of gridlock on the issue.
It still has opponents from both the left and the right who argue it either goes too far or not far enough.
Republican U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, who at first withheld judgment as he held a series of listening sessions around the state, has now come out as a staunch opponent. That could create big problems for the Tester when Rehberg’s GOP colleagues take over the House in January.
As a backdrop, political circles are thick with speculation that Rehberg may make a 2012 run against Tester for his Senate seat. Republican political leaders have already targeted Tester’s Senate seat in 2012, making it unlikely the GOP would easily let him claim a legislative victory with the bill.
Rehberg had asked earlier in the year that the creation of wilderness areas be phased-in as logging actually occurs — a proposal Tester says he could never get out of the Senate.
Rehberg reacted strongly to Tester’s plan to advance the bill before the new Congress takes over in January. The Republican said the bill indeed only has a chance in the House while Democrats still control it.
“Montana’s land is too important to gamble it away in the last hand of a losing poker game,” Rehberg said in a statement. “After refusing to actually listen to Montanans or make even the smallest, commonsense changes to the unpopular bill, there are now troubling reports about massive concessions made to appease the fringe-left in the Senate.”
Earlier in the summer a Senate panel tried to water down or strip out the logging provisions, a proposal that Tester immediately shot down as “dead on arrival.”
Tester’s office responded to Rehberg’s criticism with a statement from one of the bills key supporters, former Republican legislator and logging mill owner Sherm Anderson.
“Denny Rehberg’s accusation that Jon is listening to special interests is garbage,” Anderson said. “Jon spent months listening to all sorts of folks to write this bill. I’m not going to buy any argument that the bill is unpopular or that it’s some game. For loggers and mill owners, it’s our livelihood.”