WASHINGTON – A politically charged sportsmen’s bill intended to benefit vulnerable Senate Democrats passed its first hurdle in the Senate Monday night but is expected to face fierce opposition from gun control advocates before the final vote is taken later this week.
The vote to avoid a filibuster and allow the bill to move forward was approved on a bipartisan vote of 82 to 12. It was opposed mostly by Democrats who criticized the Sportsmen’s Act for not making it harder for some hunters to buy guns.
The measure would allow greater access to federal land, public shooting ranges, and block the Environmental Protection Agency from banning lead in ammunition and fishing lures, language originally passed by House Republicans.
Senate Democrats backed the bill after language was included to authorize $10 million in funding for the contentious Land and Water Conservation Fund, for the purchase of more private land to add to hundreds of millions of acres already in the federal inventory.
A similar measure was pursued just weeks before the 2012 election to help Democrat Jon Tester of Montana in his tight Senate race.
This time the bill is intended to prop up several Democrats locked in tough reelection battles including Senate cosponsors Mark Udall of Colorado, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mark Begich of Alaska, and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana.
Interestingly, the bill is sponsored by Sen. Kay Hagan of North Carolina, who received an “F” rating from the National Rifle Association in 2012. Hagan acknowledged during Senate debate Monday that her primary support was for the $10 million in new land purchases.
Although the Democratic cosponsors are hoping the measure will earn them political support among the nation’s 90 million sportsmen and women, a handful of Democrats plan to hijack the debate this week to instead focus on gun control.
“First thing’s first, let’s stop gun violence,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut Democrat. “What we’ve done is make it easier for people to shoot targets.”
Citing the tragic shootings in Aurora and Sandy Hook, Connecticut Democratic Sen. Christopher Murphy criticized the bill for doing “nothing to stop the scourge of gun violence across the country.”
Udall is expected to miss debate and possible amendment votes on Wednesday to attend a fundraiser in Denver that President Barack Obama is headlining on his behalf.
Udall issued a statement explaining his support, saying he “has been a fierce proponent for fully funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund” and supports the creation of “safe and well-managed areas where sportsmen can responsibly practice, promoting responsible gun use and hunting for future generations.”
Although Republicans voted in favor of moving the bill forward, many westerners are expected to challenge the funding to purchase more private property.
The bill is opposed by Gun Owners of America (GOA), which says Democrats are “trying to trick gun owners into supporting them in their upcoming tough races for reelection in pro-gun states.”
“The bill’s not about substance,” GOA said in a statement. “It’s about reelecting its anti-gun sponsors — virtually all of them red-state Democrats who face tough reelection battles in pro-gun states.”
The bill’s timing coincides with an effort announced by Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and the White House earlier Monday to tour red-leaning states and tout the benefits of the Land and Water Conservation Fund created by Congress 50 years ago, and urge lawmakers to permanently finance the program at $900 million annually.
“Without action from Congress, it will disappear in a year,” Jewell told reporters during a teleconference.
Mike Boots, acting chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said the president supports using the funding to purchase more land for national forests and grasslands as a buffer to “build resistance to climate change impact.”