- The Washington Times - Friday, May 23, 2003

Republicans last night won congressional approval to exempt the Department of Defense from certain environmental laws aimed at protecting wildlife around military bases.

The exemptions are needed so they can carry out military tests and training exercises on protected beaches and other areas where endangered animals or marine mammals live, Republican leaders say.

“We possess the most ready, capable armed forces in the world; however, expanding trends in environmental restrictions are significantly impacting military training and operational readiness,” Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, wrote in a letter to the Senate this week.

Democrats, who have made some headway in limiting the exemptions requested by the Pentagon, accuse Republicans of using the Defense Department’s spending bill to “gut two of our nation’s most important environmental laws,” said Nick J. Rahall II, West Virginia Democrat.

Though the House and Senate versions of the bill differ, both essentially would give the secretary of defense greater latitude to allow military training in areas deemed “critical habitat” under the Endangered Species Act.

The House bill also allows the secretary to permit underwater exercises that otherwise would violate the Marine Mammals Protection Act.

The provisions are part of two $400 billion defense spending bills debated on the House and Senate floors this week. The Senate overwhelmingly approved its bill last night by a vote of 98-1, with only Sen. Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia Democrat, opposing.

Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat who is running for president, missed the vote.

The House last night passed its version by a 361-68 vote, with almost all of the votes against the bill coming from Democrats.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said that current environmental laws expose the military to environmental lawsuits and deny troops critical training.

“The Department of Defense is among the very best stewards and custodians of environmentally important areas,” Mr. Rumsfeld said. “To the extent we are so restricted that we are unable to train, we’re going to end up sending men and women into battle without the kind of training that they need.”

Democrats prevailed Wednesday in limiting the exemptions to the Endangered Species Act, requiring the secretary of the interior to approve such exemptions. That amendment was adopted by a 51-48 vote.

Republican Sens. Olympia J. Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, Lincoln Chaffee of Rhode Island and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania joined Democrats to support the amendment.

Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia was the only Democrat to join Republicans. Sen. John Edwards, North Carolina Democrat, missed the vote to campaign for president in Iowa.

In the House, Democrats have had less success. Their one amendment altering the environmental provisions was not allowed under the rules drafted by Republicans.

Rep. John D. Dingell, Michigan Democrat, said, “If I understand this correctly, the Bush administration would like to send the world a message: That our military is strong enough to topple Saddam Hussein yet weak enough to be bested by Yertle the Turtle.”

Democrats charged Republicans with hypocrisy, saying the bills violate a basic tenet of Republicans’ Contract with America by exempting government from its own laws.

“Democrats should read the contract,” said Rick Tyler, spokesman for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the chief architect of the Contract with America. “It says all laws should apply to Congress. That does not mean the Department of Defense or the local police department.”

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