WASHINGTON — In a victory for President Clinton, the Senate narrowly rejected an effort Tuesday by Western senators to bar him from protecting any more federal land by designating it as a national monument.
The 50-49 defeat of the proposal by Senate Majority Whip Don Nickles, R-Okla., underlined the sensitivity that environmental issues have in an election year. Of the six GOP senators who voted "no," five are up for re-election in November.
Clinton has added nearly 2 million acres to the country's national monuments so far this year, virtually all of it in Arizona, California, Colorado, Oregon and Washington state. He has done so over the opposition of many Westerners, using a 1906 law that lets him create national monuments without the consent of Congress.
"I happen to be in favor of national monuments," Nickles said. "But I think we should have local input."
Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., contrasted Nickles' proposal with the actions of President Theodore Roosevelt, who led early 20th century efforts to create national parks.
"The party of Teddy Roosevelt officially abandons its commitment to his environmental legacy," Durbin said of Tuesday's vote.
Opponents of new national monuments have been motivated, in part, by rumors that after the November elections, Clinton may designate part or all of Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as a new monument. That could be a major impediment to the long-fought effort by oil companies to begin drilling on the refuge's oil-rich coastline.
Earlier, in the face of a likely defeat, Sen. Craig Thomas, R-Wyo., abandoned his effort to block a National Park Service ban on snowmobiling in nearly all national parks, monuments and recreation areas. Thomas will try working out a compromise in coming weeks, a spokesman said.
The administration has said the ban, issued last April, is aimed at reducing noise and environmental damage in the parks. It has been opposed by the recreation industry.
The national monument restriction was offered as an amendment to a $15.5 billion measure financing the Interior Department and federal cultural programs in the coming fiscal year.
The House approved a $14.6 billion version of the bill last month containing no language on snowmobiles or national monuments. House opponents of Clinton's monument designations lost an effort to virtually undo all the monuments he has named so far this year.
The House and Senate versions of the bill face an administration veto threat because they provide less than Clinton wants for parkland purchases, some programs for Indians, and the National Endowment for the Arts.