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Senate Panel Leaves Sage Grouse Off Defense Bill, But Still Nesting in House Version

Lawmakers on the Senate Committee on Armed Services voted 22-4 on Thursday to advance a $612 billion defense appropriations bill, but unlike their counterparts in the U.S. House of Representatives, the senators declined to add an amendment suspending action on an endangered species listing for the western plains sage grouse.

Meanwhile, the full House, along mostly partisan lines, passed its own version of the defense appropriations bill -- specifically, HR 1735, the FY2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) -- by a 269-151 vote on Friday. The House left intact language (Section 2862) barring the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) from making any decision on whether to add the sage grouse to the Endangered Species Act (ESA) until Sept. 30, 2025.

During a press conference Thursday, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who chairs the Armed Services Committee, said there was nothing in the Senate version of the NDAA, S 1118, on the sage grouse.

"Nothing is in the bill pertaining to that," McCain said. "Any member, of course, is free to propose any amendment that comes to mind; that's why we spend all that time on hundreds of amendments. But I'm not frankly interested in that."

McCain said the defense bill's passage "reflects this committee's proud tradition of bipartisan consensus, in support of the brave men and women in our armed services. We worked through literally hundreds of amendments and some of the toughest issues that are confronting our military today."

Lawmakers in both houses of Congress must eventually agree to a compromise defense spending bill. In the House, 41 Democrats joined 228 Republicans in passing HR 1735, while 143 Democrats and eight Republicans voted no.

Shortly before HR 1735's passage, the House voted 229-190 to add an amendment submitted by Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK). That amendment, No. 38, calls for reversing and prohibiting the further listing of the Lesser Prairie Chicken as a threatened or endangered species until 2021, and de-lists the American Burying Beetle as a threatened or endangered species on the ESA.

During a House Armed Services Committee meeting on April 29, Rep. Niki Tsongas (D-CA) introduced an amendment to remove Section 2862 from HR 1735, but it failed on 26-36 vote. Later that day, the entire bill passed the committee on 60-2 vote.

President Obama has threatened to veto the defense appropriations bill on several grounds.

"As you know, the president sent over a rather detailed message to the House Armed Services Committee," McCain told reporters Thursday. "I hope that we can satisfy some of those concerns. But when a president vetoes a defense authorization bill, it's a very serious step because of the effect on the ability of our military to defend the nation."

In 2010, Ken Salazar, then secretary of the Department of Interior (DOI), said scientists at DOI's FWS had concluded the sage grouse deserved to be included on the ESA, but declined to do so because other species faced more imminent threats (see Daily GPI, March 8, 2010). After a court settlement in 2011, DOI's Bureau of Land Management (BLM) agreed to not make a decision on whether to list the bird as threatened or endangered before Sept. 30 (see Daily GPI, Dec. 30, 2011).

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