Gregory Roberts: “Bipartisan” bill doomed by Senate squabbling

What could be a more likely vehicle for hands-across-the-aisle harmony, especially between the two U.S. senators from Louisiana, than the Bipartisan Sportsmen’s Act of 2014?

The bill, drawn up by U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., truly was bipartisan — at least, to begin with — with 19 Democrats and 26 Republicans signing on as cosponsors. The list included both Louisiana senators, Democrat Mary Landrieu and Republican David Vitter — and the two of them come from a state called the Sportsman’s Paradise!

But no — ’twas not to be.

When the bill came to the U.S. Senate floor last week, it died like a fish shot in a barrel, the victim of election-year politics and bitter partisan squabbling. Landrieu voted to keep the bill alive; Vitter voted to put it down.

Really, though, the outcome should not have come as a surprise: It was, in the famous saying attributed to Yogi Berra, déjà vu all over again. The same script played out on May 12, in a similar procedural vote on an energy efficiency bill that came out of the House with broad bipartisan support. That bill got hamstrung by disputes over the Keystone pipeline; the sportsmen’s bill collapsed in disagreements over gun laws.The bigger picture, though, is the struggle for control of the U.S. Senate. Republicans decry the dictatorial rule of the current leader of the Democratic majority, Harry Reid, of Nevada. But a swing of six seats in the fall elections will put the Republicans in charge. They’ve targeted several incumbent Democrats facing tough re-election challenges, including Hagan and Landrieu.

Hagan’s bill, which could give her an accomplishment to point to in her campaign, basically was designed to open federal lands to more hunting and fishing.

Landrieu hoped to add a couple of amendments: one restoring to hunters the right to use dogs to pursue deer in the Kisatchie National Forest in central Louisiana and the other transferring regulation of the red snapper fishery in the Gulf of Mexico to Gulf states from the federal government, which has cut the season to less than a dozen days.

Vitter was ready with a similar red snapper amendment of his own, as well as another to shed more light on the deliberations of federal fishery management agencies.

But it turns out other senators wanted to amend the bill, too, even if their proposals had little to do with hunting or fishing. U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., moved to overturn a ban on assault weapons in the District of Columbia and to allow guns in post offices and other federal buildings. Other Republicans hoped to loosen other gun laws. Liberal Democrats countered with measures to restrict guns.

That changed the game. Votes on guns put moderate Democrats from red or purple states — such as Landrieu and Hagan — in difficult positions politically.

As majority leader, Reid decides what amendments can be offered on the floor. But his majority — 55 of the 100 seats — can’t cut off a filibuster, which takes 60 votes. The fate of many bills rests on a vote to halt debate, and that was the case with Hagan’s proposal. It fell well short, with 11 liberal Democrats joining 45 Republicans to kill it.

“This is an example of Republicans filibustering not one of our bills but their own bill,” Reid said after the vote. “How about that? Twenty-six Republican cosponsors, and they filibustered their own bill.”

The Republicans, he said, “can’t agree among themselves what they want as amendments.”

But that’s not how Vitter sees it.

“It’s very disappointing that Sen. Reid and his cohorts chose to politicize a popular, bipartisan bill by blocking every Republican amendment — even amendments to better protect and enhance fish and wildlife, wetlands, recreational hunting access and strengthen our Second Amendment rights,” Vitter said in a prepared statement.

“We may not agree on everything,” Landrieu said in a statement, “but we should not let that stop us from passing common-sense legislation that has strong support from both parties and provides more opportunities in the Sportsman’s Paradise for hunters, anglers and folks that want to enjoy Louisiana’s outdoors.”

Gregory Roberts is chief of The Advocate Washington bureau. His email is groberts@theadvocate.com. Follow him on Twitter, @GregRobertsDC.