September 29, 2007 - Bend Bulletin Covers the DRC Funding Issue

October 11, 2007
September 29, 2007 - Bend Bulletin Covers the DRC Funding Issue

Three bills to support area held ‘hostage’ by senator

By Keith Chu / The Bulletin
WASHINGTON — In the name of holding the line against federal budget deficits, U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn has stopped more than 80 bills in their tracks this year - including three Central Oregon conservation bills that total a few million dollars.

Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican, has nothing against the programs – which effect the Deschutes River Conservancy, Tumalo and North Unit irrigation districts – said Coburn spokesman John Hart.

“His issue is cost,” Hart said.

Senate leaders and Oregon’s delegation said they are working to change the budget hawk’s mind, but were vague about how they would allay Coburn’s concerns. And they said if they can’t convince the senator, the future for these programs becomes uncertain.

“Sen. Smith introduced the (Deschutes River Conservancy) legislation because he believes it’ll be a good law, and he’s going to keep working for a vote and passage,” said Republican Gordon Smith spokesman R.C. Hammond.

Meanwhile, local groups jammed at Coburn’s roadblock said he can’t change his mind fast enough. The Deschutes River Conservancy bill, for example, would allow the conservation group merely to qualify for some federal money.

“Our type of work has never been a political issue, so to get caught up in this whole budget question at the federal level, yeah it is frustrating,” said Tod Heisler, executive director of the Deschutes River Conservancy. “That’s all happening at a time when the federal (funding) is needed more than ever before.”

The Tumalo Irrigation District bill allows the government to spend up to $4 million on conservation projects, but it doesn’t actually budget money for that purpose. The North Unit Irrigation District bill involves no money at all - it allows farmers to draw water from outside the district boundaries, as part of a plan to improve river conditions for fish - but it is attached to a package of bills that do include spending.

Coburn blocked the bills to signal his opposition to legislation that would allow the government to create programs without a plan to pay for them, Hart said.

Coburn’s actions in the name of cutting government spending are misguided, said Josh Kardon, chief of staff to Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.

“Sen. Wyden shares Sen. Coburn’s concerns about the runaway budget deficit during this administration, but we think he’s holding the wrong bills hostage,” Kardon said.

Coburn is blocking the bills with a Senate procedure called a “hold,” that essentially signals the senator will not sign onto timesaving procedural agreements that are now used on many bills.

It’s an increasingly popular tactic often used on nominees for administration posts, said Jim Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University. But Coburn’s large-scale maneuver is unusual.

“For one person to have so many holds on authorization bills rather than on a nominee here or there is rare,” Thurber said.

Several Senate maneuvers can defeat a hold, but they are time-consuming and can require 60 votes, according to Thurber and Coburn’s office.

Senators typically use holds behind the scenes to improve their bargaining position, Thurber said.

“A hold is a stealthy, sneaky way of changing things and holding things that I don’t think in a deliberative body is good.”

A few years ago, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., placed a secret hold on Rep. Greg Walden’s Bend Pine Nursery bill, officials say because apparently Walden did not secure support for her Wild Sky Wilderness proposal in the U.S. House. Now Murray’s bill is stuck again, thanks to a Coburn hold.

Still, a spokesman the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, chaired by Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., said Senate leaders believe they won’t have to go around the holds.

“We’re fairly confident that there’ll be a successful resolution of this, so I don’t think it is necessarily helpful to talk about what-ifs or Plan Bs or other steps that might be taken,” said Bill Wicker, spokesman for the Senate energy committee, which Bingaman chairs. “I’m not in a position to forecast when, but I do know that things seem to be moving in the right direction.”

Keith Chu can be reached at 202-662-7456 or at

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