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Westerners Block Grazing Fee Hike In Senate

November 10, 1993 GMT

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Stymied by Western lawmakers, the Senate abandoned its effort Tuesday to increase grazing fees and tighten rules for using federal range lands. The Clinton administration announced it would implement some changes on its own but hinted they would be less drastic than its original ideas.

Western senators declared victory in blocking the reforms from becoming law. And a top Interior Department official said Secretary Bruce Babbitt, the primary advocate of the changes, would consider imposing two tiers of fees so small ranchers would pay less for grazing cattle on federal land than those with large herds.

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Babbitt’s original proposals were more stringent that those killed by the western senators’ filibuster. But he and his aides spoke in terms Tuesday that left the door open to softening those plans in light of the Senate debate.

Babbitt intends to go to Colorado next week at the invitation of Gov. Roy Romer to talk with ranchers, officials and environmentalists before publishing his official proposals, said his chief of staff, Tom Collier.

″We want to take everybody’s temperature and see where we are″ before writing the regulation, Collier said.

He said Babbitt will look into a two-tiered system, charging small ranchers less than he originally proposed last August. Babbitt is committed to the other environmental changes he proposed but might add more specifics and will prepare an environmental impact statement, Collier said.

″The effort to force these changes upon the ranchers and the people of the rural West has been defeated. This is a big victory for the ranchers and all the people of America’s rural west,″ said Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., leader of the Senate filibuster that blocked the legislation.

After lobbying by Babbitt and other administration officials failed to break Domenici’s filibuster, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., withdrew the range revisions that he had developed with House Democrats. It had passed the House by a 3-1 margin.

″We have listened, and we have learned a great deal. And that fact will have a significant impact as we move forward,″ Babbitt said in announcing he would proceed in the coming weeks to put his original proposals into federal regulations.

″We remain committed to the principles of range reform, and we retain our focus on the need to restore and protect the great, productive American range lands.″

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His spokesman Kevin Sweeney said Babbitt does not rule out making changes in his plan during the rulemaking and its required public comment period.

″We are going into this with an open mind,″ he said.

Although Babbitt has the authority to implement his proposals, including more than doubling grazing fees for ranchers on federal lands, opponents said that now will be harder because the debate energized westerners.

″The governors will be involved,″ said Domenici. ″Citizens of our western states will get involved. The secretary will not have the carte blanche he had a couple of months ago to change everything.″

Babbitt had hoped for legislative action to put the issue to rest and avoid future congressional battles.

Instead, opponents said they intend to take up the issue in Senate hearings early next year in the hope of passing legislation to override Babbitt’s effort.

″The secretary has come very very close to igniting a second sagebrush rebellion,″ said Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho.

Sen. Malcolm Wallop, R-Wyo., raised the prospect of legal challenges to Babbitt’s proposals.

″A lot of what he is trying to do is contrary to existing law,″ Wallop told a news conference.

The range land changes were contained in an Interior Department spending bill for fiscal year 1994. Reid’s action in effect stripped all mention of range reform from the bill, and the Senate passed the spending package later Tuesday on a 91-9 vote.

Reid, who had pushed his compromise as better for ranchers than Babbitt’s plan, suggested Tuesday that Babbitt consider a two-tier grazing fee that would charge less to small ranchers than large ranchers.

In August, Babbitt announced a three-year plan to raise the monthly fees charged ranchers who graze their animals on federal lands from $1.86 to $4.28 for the amount of forage required to feed a cow and calf or five sheep for a year.

He also proposed changes aimed at greater environmental protection and less rancher power over range policy.

The Senate initially passed a Domenici-sponsored moratorium on the Babbitt plan for one year.

That led to the House-Senate compromise that dropped the grazing fee increase to $3.45 and kept most of Babbitt’s other proposals.

Western senators still objected on the grounds the compromise was developed without congressional hearings. They kept up their filibuster for weeks, but the modern Senate usually does not require filibustering senators to hold the floor by nonstop talking. Instead they simply refuse to agree to any limitation of debate.

The spending bill returned to the House, which voted by unanimous consent to send it to the president.