Jun 8, 2022
By BRUCE NOBLE
Legendary baseball player and coach Yogi Berra once famously said “it ain’t over till it’s over.” That phrase aptly applies to the CORE Act. Just when I think I’ve written my final words about the CORE Act and it’s safely headed toward the finish line, I find there’s more to say. I certainly feel like saying more after the May 3 markup before the Senate Energy and Natural Resource Committee that ended in a frustrating 10-10 party-line deadlock when the Committee voted. What’s next for the CORE Act? It ain’t over till it’s over.
The CORE Act is pretty familiar to those who follow public lands legislation in Colorado, but its contents bear repeating. It includes four pieces of previously introduced legislation: it adds 61,000 acres of designated wilderness in the San Juan Mountains, it protects the Camp Hale area near Leadville where the 10th Mountain Division trained during World War II, it enhances protection of 200,000 acres on the Thompson Divide just south of the Roaring Fork Valley, and it officially establishes Curecanti National Recreation Area as a unit of the national park system. In all, the CORE Act would protect over 400,000 acres of public lands. It has been vetted numerous times in local communities. There is little opposition to the act.
So what’s the problem? At a micro level, the CORE Act illustrates the challenges of getting legislation through an evenly divided Senate. But in a larger sense, we are witnessing the workings of a Senate more intent on preventing action than on actually passing laws.
The purpose of a markup is to give Senators a chance to offer amendments to legislation before they vote on it. In that spirit, Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) offered an amendment to the CORE Act that would stop the proposed mineral withdrawals on Thompson Divide. That amendment ended in a 10-10 deadlock with all Republicans voting for it and all Democrats voting against it, thus defeating the amendment. Because the Lee amendment was not included in the CORE Act, the committee then deadlocked on reporting the bill to the full Senate for consideration. Indeed, three bills that came before the Energy and Natural Resources Committee on May 3 all ended in a 10-10 party-line vote. Wow, what a way to run a railroad!
Frustration over the stalemate led to an interesting exchange between Senator Angus King (I-ME) and Senator John Barrasso (R-WY). Senator King said he understood that “local control” was a fundamental tenet of the Republican Party. And yet, three bills coming before the committee that day were being “effectively killed” by Republicans even after the bill sponsors had demonstrated the extent of the local support that existed for the bills. Senator Barrasso impatiently replied that other bills come before the committee with extensive local support for energy development on public lands only to be killed by Democrats.
So who’s right here? In my opinion, they both have valid points. The United States government owns 27% of the land in the nation, most of it in the western part of the country. Surely that provides enough room for some land protection over here and some energy development over there. But until our members of Congress can reestablish the understanding that the art of compromise depends on giving up on a little that you don’t like in order to get a little that you do like, we aren’t going to see much success in passing legislation.
That said, Senator King was very wrong about one thing. The 10-10 vote on the Core Act did not “effectively kill” it. Under current Senate rules, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) can work with Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chair Joe Manchin (D-WV) to bring the CORE Act to the Senate floor for a vote. However, the bill would still require 60 votes to avoid a filibuster in a Senate divided 50-50. Thus, the only real chance for the CORE Act is to be attached to another piece of legislation that is popular enough to garner 60 votes or more from the full Senate.
The larger issue for the nation, in my opinion, is to find a way to return to the art of compromise so critical to passing legislation rather than using the tools of the legislative branch to prevent anything from happening. Speaking more pragmatically though, time is running out for the CORE Act. This session of Congress ends on Jan. 3, 2023. If the CORE Act fails to pass by then, it will be difficult to resurrect it.
As much as I’d love to see our country find a way to end gridlock in Congress, let’s focus first on rounding up 60 votes or more for the CORE Act in Congress and get it passed. It ain’t over till it’s over, but it could very well be over for the CORE Act if we wake up on Jan. 4, 2023 without Congress having passed this important piece of public lands legislation.
Bruce Noble is retired after serving a 33-year career with the National Park Service. He was most recently the superintendent for Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park and Curecanti National Recreation Area near Gunnison.