Presidential hopeful plays with fire

 

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Could Tip O'Neill have been wrong? Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle may be about to find out, perhaps to his regret. With one artful insertion of law, the South Dakota Democrat demonstrated that even if "all politics is local," as O'Neill famously said, the local and the national become easily enmeshed, with one complicating the other.

Especially for those, such as Daschle, who think about running for president.

Last month, the South Dakota Democrat slipped into a House-Senate Conference Committee an amendment giving the force of law to an agreement reached by the Forest Service, the logging industry and two major environmental organizations to allow thinning in the Black Hills National Forest. The agreement also protects the roadless status of an area known as Beaver Park, and adds some 3,600 acres to the wilderness system.

But Daschle didn't stop there. His amendment insulates the terms of the agreement from any appeal or legal challenge.

This is what is known as giving your opponents an opening. Immediately, the Western Republicans pounced. Just what we've been asking for, they said. What's sauce for South Dakota's goose ought to be sauce for us ganders elsewhere in the West.

Theirs is a selective appetite. They only want the no-legal-challenge ingredient of Daschle's sauce, not the pre-seasoning of negotiations to work out a deal acceptable to the government, the timber industry and (at least some) conservationists. Ignoring the negotiating component, Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., announced he would prepare legislation to nationalize the immunity ("sufficiency language" in government jargon) provisions of the South Dakota law.

Domenici even got two Democrats - Ron Wyden of Oregon and Dianne Feinstein of California - to back his proposal. He's unlikely to get the nine more he'd need to overcome a threatened filibuster (assuming he held all the Republicans, which he wouldn't) and it's awfully hard for the minority to hitch a rider to an appropriations bill. But in the meantime, he and his allies can make Daschle uncomfortable.

Almost as obvious as the Republican clamor was the silence from the other side. Yes, Michael Francis of the Wilderness Society did put out a statement regretting the sufficiency language. From the rest of the Greens, there was silence, hardly what could have been expected were the Republicans still running the joint, and had Larry Craig, R-Idaho, for instance, gotten similar immunity for his state's forests.

At first glance, this seems to be crass politics and rank hypocrisy. Having helped save the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Daschle gets a pass on an environmental desecration that would have aroused the furies had it come from a less-favored fellow.

Another glance reveals, as other glances often do, a more complex situation, though no shortage of politics. Two parties to the negotiations, the Wilderness Society and the Sierra Club, gave up more than they wanted to, and more than another group would. The Laramie-based Biodiversity Conservation Alliance (formerly Biodiversity Associates), opted out of the talks earlier this year. "What they were proposing was (to) nuke the roadless area," said Jeff Kessler of the Alliance, "and in a way that would not help the forest."

The Alliance may be a small organization, but its decision was no small matter. These negotiations were actually renegotiations to alter an earlier agreement. That first agreement had been approved by a federal court, in settlement of a suit in which the BCA was a plaintiff. Without its participation, there could be no settlement, leaving the new agreement vulnerable to challenge.

This was unacceptable to the timber industry, which had also given up quite a lot, an assessment that comes not from an industry flack but from Sam Clausen, the head of the Sierra Club in Rapid City. "This is no bonanza for the industry," Clausen said. "They're not going to sell any of this timber." Instead, the government (that's us) will pay logging firms to thin an area infested by mountain pine beetle, and to create fuel breaks around private property and inhabited areas. Without the prospect of big bucks, the companies wanted the assurance of prompt payment. Hence the rider banning appeals.

"We don't like the possible precedent it sets," Clausen said. But under the circumstances, he found it acceptable.

Those circumstances are political. Of all the contests this fall, none is more important to Daschle than the re-election of his Democratic colleague, Sen. Tim Johnson, tied with Rep. John Thune in the latest polls. Thune had been scoring political points in western South Dakota by pushing for even broader exemptions to environmental laws * one of his proposals would have allowed logging in a wilderness area * and by associating Johnson with anti-logging Greens. Slipping that sufficiency language into the law was Daschle's way of insulating Johnson from Thune's attack.

Still, Daschle had to know that he was providing ammunition to the other side. For months, Western Republicans had been using the specter of forest fires to open up more woods to more logging. Now that the Democratic leader has done something similar for his own state, he will have to fend off the Republicans or suffer the disapproval of the environmental community, a potent force in Democratic presidential primaries.

So was Tip O'Neill wrong? Well, partly.

All politics is local only when you're not a national figure.

Jon Margolis covers Washington's wheels and deals from Barton, Vermont.