Virgin Islands park bill advances

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Hours before President Obama urged members of Congress to show spending restraint Wednesday, the House voted to authorize spending as much as $50 million to create a national historic site in the U.S. Virgin Islands on beachfront land the National Park Service isn’t yet sure it wants.

Republicans had blocked the bill last week, saying it was a bad use of money for a government bleeding cash, but Democrats pushed it through this week, saying they didn’t want to lose the chance to acquire the land.

And in a show that partisanship abounds, the House also unanimously passed a bill sponsored by a Democrat that allow for repairs to waterways in Idaho wilderness lands - after Democrats last week voted down a bill with the exact same language that was sponsored by a Republican. Last week’s vote was in retaliation for Republicans blocking the Virgin Islands bill.

“Payback time, I guess, is once again in order,” said Rep. Pete Sessions, Texas Republican.

Both bills will still need Senate approval before going to the president.

The arcane maneuvers on the floor masked the fundamental battle between Democrats and Republicans over whether the federal government should be expanding its land, even as the National Park Service already has a $9 billion backlog of obligations.

The Virgin Islands project, on the island of St. Croix, would be called Castle Nugent National Historic Site. It’s intended to preserve 2,900 acres of land and an additional 8,600 acres underwater that together include archeological sites, a barrier coral reef and historic cattle plantations.

The underwater lands are owned by the Virgin Islands, but the other lands are privately held and would have to be bought and managed, at an estimated cost of between $40 million and $50 million. That’s what sparked the floor fight.

Three years ago Congress directed the National Park Service to do a study, at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars, to see if it should acquire the land. That study is not yet completed, and the Park Service has asked that Congress delay the bill until that study is done.

But Democrats said developers are eyeing the land and could strike before the Park Service. They also mocked Republicans for wanting to wait, saying it wouldn’t be the first time Congress has authorized sites without completed studies.

“This concern for NPS studies is newly discovered,” said House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Nick Rahall Jr., West Virginia Democrat.

He accused Republicans of “park-bashing” and said the service ran up a $9 billion backlog of spending because Republicans didn’t fund the agency properly when they were in power.

The Park Service has said its draft conclusions suggest the land is a good candidate for preservation.

Democrats also said the bill doesn’t actually spend any money, but allows Congress to spend that money in the future.

“This bill does not cost $50 million. It does not cost $40 million. It does not cost $30 million. It does not cost one penny. It is simply an authorization,” said Rep. Jared Polis, Colorado Democrat.

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