- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 19, 2002

Negotiations broke down yesterday over the Bush administration's plan to curb forest wildfires, and Democrats may block a final vote on the measure today.

"There are all kinds of tactics being used to keep us from voting," said Sen. Michael B. Enzi, Wyoming Republican.

Debate over the amendment to the Interior Department spending bill to allow the thinning of bug-infested trees has broken down along party lines, after initially being supported by Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California and Ron Wyden of Oregon.

Republican senators say Mrs. Feinstein is still trying for a compromise and the Bush administration remains optimistic a compromise will be reached this week.

"As best I can tell, there are people on both sides of the aisle trying to come to an agreement," said Mark Rey, undersecretary of agriculture.

"My sense is they are working awfully hard to try to find common ground," Mr. Rey said.

Democrats are offering their own version, but both sides say they lack the 60 votes Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle is requiring for passage.

"There is no question that on controversial issues, this Senate must acquire 60 votes to pass an amendment," said Mr. Daschle, South Dakota Democrat.

"Over the course of the last several weeks, we have attempted to find common ground and, at least to date, have failed," Mr. Daschle said.

The 60-vote requirement is being challenged by Sen. Larry E. Craig of Idaho, the lead Republican sponsor of the measure.

"You know the rules as well as I do," said Mr. Craig, who is insisting the Democratic and Republican versions be decided on a simple majority vote.

Mr. Craig said that the Republicans will continue to push for passage of the measure.

"We are a long way from this issue being over," he said.

The sticking points are judicial review of tree-thinning projects and limitations of tree thinning in watersheds primary sources of drinking water.

President Bush and Western lawmakers have modeled their approach to fire prevention after exemptions Mr. Daschle allowed for a timber project in his home state of South Dakota, which was first reported by The Washington Times.

To date, 65,000 fires have burned 6.5 million acres nationally, and the fire season will continue into next month.

"If this had been Hurricane Andrew, help would have been parachuted in," Mr. Craig said.

Mr. Craig said his amendment would allow thinning of fuels in 10 million of more than 33 million acres listed as being in danger of catastrophic fire. No old-growth trees would be affected, and no new roads would be constructed.

The Democrats' version focused on 2.5 million acres near communities. But Sen. Jeff Bingaman, New Mexico Democrat and chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee announced yesterday his plan would double the acreage to 5 million.

"We have had one of the worst fire seasons on record this year, and no one wants to see a repeat of it," said Mr. Bingaman.

"I believe that my approach is a balanced yet aggressive way to reduce the threat of wildfire in the West," Mr. Bingaman said.

Negotiations on the House side are making more favorable advances and both sides are meeting on a daily basis, said a Republican staffer.

"But success is far from certain, given what we've seen in the other chamber. The game is far from over," the staffer said.

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