Thursday, June 26, 2008

House Democrats on a single committee used an emergency power Wednesday to halt new uranium mining claims near the Grand Canyon, in a move Republicans say violates the Constitution.

Voting 20-2, the Natural Resources Committee passed a resolution declaring an emergency and directing the Interior Department secretary to block new claims. Under a 1976 act of Congress the new resolution has the force of law, without needing the full House or Senate.

Democrats have not been able to pass a regular law controlling new claims, and backers Wednesday acknowledged the resolution was taken an extraordinary, though they said justified, step.

“This is, if I may, grabbing at the one legal straw left to us,” said Rep. Raul M. Grijalva, Arizona Democrat. “We’re talking about the Grand Canyon. We’re talking about a cultural icon.”

Republicans were so furious at the end-around they walked out, leaving only Democrats to vote on the resolution.

“We will not be a part of this resolution. It’s the wrong thing to do,” said Rep. Rob Bishop, Utah Republican, who led the walkout. “You can pass whatever you want to in whatever way you want to. I will not be part of this.”

Republicans questioned existence of an emergency. Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas said Democrats would regret taking potential energy sources out of production in the midst of record energy prices, and Mr. Bishop blasted Democrats for controlling the timing of the vote, comparing it to a staged professional wrestling match.

Committee Chairman Nick J. Rahall, West Virginia Democrat, said using the move was no worse than what Republicans did when they controlled Congress.

“We sat through many such, what you might call, shenanigans,” he said. “The process is what it is, and the majority today is following that process.”

Southwestern officials have complained that an explosion in mining could damage drinking water from the Colorado River, which feeds residents in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Phoenix and San Diego.

The resolution wouldn’t have any effect on claims already secured, but the measure’s backers said there’s been a rush in recent years to file new claims. The Environmental Working Group says there’s been a 100-fold increase in the last five years.

A Congressional Research Service memo prepared for Republicans said the resolution may not hold up to court scrutiny, based on a 1983 Supreme Court ruling INS v. Chadha.

“Should such a resolution be adopted it appears likely that the Secretary would be well within his authority to interpret it as informational and/or advisory in nature and, thus, will be able to avoid taking the actions contemplated under the statute,” CRS said in the memo.

Opponents of the resolution said the most likely outcome is that the administration does refuse to enforce the emergency halt, and environmental groups go to court to try to force the Interior Department’s hand.

The question would then be kicked to the courts.

CRS said the Natural Resources Committee has taken a similar step twice before, but both times courts ruled on other grounds and didn’t reach the question of a legislative veto.

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