Legislation that would have exempted beach erosion and existing flood-control projects from the Endangered Species Act lost in the House amid opposition from Democrats and moderate Republicans.
Sponsors of the bill pulled it from the floor Wednesday after lawmakers voted 227-196 for an amendment that effectively would have disallowed most of the exemptions.The vote was a defeat for longtime critics of the Endangered Species Act and property rights advocates, who had argued that restrictions under the law contributed to the widespread flooding this past winter in California.
Opponents of the bill said blaming the law, which protects plants and animals from extinction, for California's flood damage was a ruse to gut the controversial law.
"Do we want to solve a problem or do we want to beat up on the Endangered Species Act?" asked Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., who had offered what he called an "environmentally friendly substitute" to deal with flood protection.
Fifty-four Republicans joined 172 Democrats and the one Independent in supporting Boehlert's amendment. Immediately supporters of the original bill pulled the legislation from the floor.
Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., sponsor of the more sweeping bill, said Boehlert's proposal would have little impact because it would provide relief from the Endangered Species Act only if there were an "imminent" threat to health and safety.
Pombo had argued that species protection contributed to the widespread flood damage in his district. He maintained that levees were weakened because repairs and maintenance were delayed or prevented by the law.
Pombo's bill would have exempted from the requirements of the species law any repairs, maintenance or rebuilding of existing flood control facilities including dams and levees. It also would insulate from the law the operation of a variety of water management activities including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' beach erosion activities.
Environmentalists had said the bill would inhibit species protection across the country - from protecting salmon in the Pacific northwest to managing the Florida Everglades - because many endangered animals and plants are linked to the nation's waterways.
Opponents characterized the legislation as a scheme to use concern about flood damage to effectively repeal much of the law. They argued there is no evidence that species protection contributed to the extensive flood damage in California that last winter left more than 300,000 acres under water and displaced 120,000 people from their homes.
Rep. Bruce Vento, D-Minn., accused the bill's sponsors of "exploiting these human tragedies" by using the floods to engineer "a wholesale retreat from the Endangered Species Act."
"You don't have to blow a hole in the Endangered Species Act to take care of this (flood damage) problem," declared Rep. George Miller, D-Calif.
But supporters said it was a choice of protecting people instead of bugs.