- The Washington Times - Monday, January 12, 2009

Senate Democrats flexed their new legislative muscle Sunday, using the first vote of the new Congress to break a Republican filibuster from the previous session of Congress, and advance a wide-ranging land-conservation measure.

The omnibus land bill would preserve more than 2 million acres of land, establish new layers of bureaucracy in the Bureau of Land Management, and designate former President Bill Clinton’s childhood home a national historic site.

The bill’s supporters, who had been stymied last year by a Republican filibuster, said the measure was long overdue.

“Some have suggested that these bills are not a priority deserving of Senate floor action. I disagree,” said Sen. Jeff Bingaman, New Mexico Democrat, the bill’s sponsor and chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. “Many of the bills in this package resolve major land- and water-policy issues that have been contested over for years, and in some cases for decades.”

A handful of Republican senators, led by Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, bristled at the Sunday vote called by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

“When the American people asked Congress to set a new tone, I don’t believe refusing to listen to the concerns of others was what they had in mind,” Mr. Coburn said in a statement. “The American people expect us to hold open, civil and thorough debates on costly legislation, not ram through 1,300-page bills when few are watching.”

But a large number of more-liberal Republican lawmakers, including Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, sided with the Democratic majority to move the lands bill forward.

“On balance, this omnibus bill is widely supported,” said Mrs. Murkowski, the ranking Republican on the Senate energy committee.

The 66-12 vote to end the filibuster was buoyed by 11 Republicans who voted with Democrats.

Mr. Reid, Nevada Democrat, said the Senate would not vote on the bill until seeing how President Bush and President-elect Barack Obama decide to use the remaining Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) funds.

After their first vote, Senate Democrats met, along with senior Obama economic adviser Lawrence H. Summers, to discuss what will happen with the remaining $350 billion of funds for bailing out the nation’s financial institutions and what Mr. Obama will include in his economic-stimulus plan.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, called Senate Democrats to make sure that there will be stricter conditions put on the money and tighter oversight.

Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, said that while Mr. Obama’s economic advisers provided some more details about their economic-stimulus proposal, he said senators have yet to receive anything “in writing.”

The first vote of the Senate in the 111th Congress also marks a key victory for Mr. Reid over Mr. Coburn.

Mr. Coburn’s allies in the Senate said the land bill, which is composed of 160 separate land measures considered in previous Congresses, is being rammed through the Senate with little debate.

“I smell the same stale air of good old boy, backslapping, lobbyist-driven politics,” said Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican. “This is not the greatest deliberative body in the world. This is the greatest chokehold body in the world.”

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