Partisan rancor stalls forests bill

    Republicans are accusing Senate Democrats of using "a new tool of obstruction" to stall legislation designed to prevent the kinds of wildfires that devastated Southern California last month.

    The Democrats have refused to agree to routine appointments to a forest bill conference committee, saying they have been snubbed in the current Medicare and energy-bill conferences.

    Sen. Larry E. Craig, Idaho Republican, said, "The blame rests entirely with the [Democratic] leadership" for waging a "silent filibuster behind the scenes."

    "As we bury the firefighters and pick up the pieces in California, someone is going to have to explain why this bill can't go forward," Mr. Craig said.

    Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, said Democrats have been shut out of fair participation in several bicameral conferences that hammer out the differences between the House and Senate versions of legislation.

    Refusing to grant unanimous consent to assign conferees, usually a delegate from each chamber, for the Healthy Forests Restoration Act and a bill designed to increase charitable giving is his party's only form of meaningful protest, Mr. Daschle said. 

"I believe whenever you lock out Democrats, whenever we don't have a full and open debate on issues of this import, the country suffers," Mr. Daschle said. "We've seen that over and over again, and that's why we're not going to be part of it any longer. We are going to insist on being full partners, or we're not going to have a conference at all."

    The forest bill, which passed the Senate on Thursday by a vote of 80-14 and the House in May by a 256-170 vote, would reduce the bureaucratic obstacles to thinning 20 million acres of federal forestland, much of which is choked by tinderbox undergrowth.

    Wildfires in Southern California last month destroyed nearly 750,000 acres of forestland, killed 22 persons and destroyed 3,600 homes.

    Sen. Rick Santorum, Pennsylvania Republican, said Mr. Daschle's concerns don't "meet the straight-face test." 

    "I would suggest to Senator Daschle, if he wants to complain about how they may or may not have been treated in conferences in the past, make your arguments about the bills where you've been treated unfairly," Mr. Santorum said. "These are two bills in which you have been treated fairly, which [Democrats] have been fully incorporated into the process, that are priorities that you say are bipartisan."

    House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, echoed Mr. Daschle's concerns yesterday in a letter to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Texas Republican.

    Mr. Hoyer wrote that he was "deeply troubled" that Democrats were "being inappropriately shut out of important conference meetings on Medicare and energy legislation." 

    He cited a meeting last week of conference members negotiating a compromise between the House and Senate versions of Medicare reform. Rep. Bill Thomas, California Republican and conference chairman, "denied [Democrats´] right to participate, saying that he only invites 'willing members' to meetings," Mr. Hoyer said. 

    "This policy of exclusion offends our democratic tradition, demeans this institution and silences the elected representatives of 130 million Americans," Mr. Hoyer wrote. "Moreover, it makes bipartisanship on issues of great magnitude almost impossible to achieve." 

    Sen. Thad Cochran, a Mississippi Republican who would be the chairman of any conference dealing with the forest bill, said he would urge a vote to end the Democrats' de facto filibuster either today or tomorrow. Republicans would need 60 votes to invoke cloture on a potentially endless debate brought by Democrats on a motion to appoint conference members. 

    Democrats have stood firm on several filibuster threats this year. While the forest bill garnered 80 votes, two key Democrats — Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, both of California — said they would support a filibuster.