Montana’s newest U.S. senator, Democrat John Walsh, tried Thursday to pass the bill protecting the North Fork of the Flathead River from mineral development, but a trio of Republican senators blocked the move.
Walsh, appointed to the job on Feb. 7, asked the U.S. Senate to pass the measure by “unanimous consent,” but three senators – Ted Cruz of Texas, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma – objected.
“This is exactly what’s wrong with Washington, D.C., and I invite my colleagues who objected to the bill to float the North Fork this spring and see why this bill is so important,” Walsh said in a statement.
The offices of Cruz, Toomey and Coburn could not be reached for comment late Thursday.
While Walsh’s attempt to pass the bill failed, the measure remains on the Senate calendar and could be considered later.
“He’ll continue working with the senators who objected to see if he can get (the hold) removed,” said Walsh spokeswoman Andrea Helling.
A similar measure sponsored by Rep. Steve Daines, R-Mont., passed the House a month ago.
Walsh’s campaign issued a statement late Thursday urging Daines to convince the three Republican senators to remove their holds from the bill.
Daines asked why Senate Democratic leaders couldn’t have brought the bill to the floor for a regular vote, avoiding the need for unanimous consent.
“I’m interested in getting this done and working for the solutions for the people of Montana,” he said. “We passed this in the House through regular order. I hope they can do the same in the Senate. … The Democrats control the majority in the Senate, so they can set the agenda.”
As long as an individual senator has a “hold” on the bill, it takes a 60-vote majority to overcome it.
Legislation to protect the North Fork watershed, in the works for at least four years, would bar any future oil and gas or other mineral leases on federally owned land in the watershed west of Glacier National Park.
The effort has been in conjunction with agreements by Canada to stop mineral development in the North Fork drainage in British Columbia.
In remarks on the Senate floor Thursday, Walsh said Montanans have fought for 40 years to keep the area pristine, and that its preservation helps support thousands of jobs in the area.
“The entire Montana congressional delegation is in bipartisan agreement that the leases in the North Fork deserve to be withdrawn permanently from future mineral development,” he said. “Montanans of all stripes have endorsed this action, including the local chambers of commerce and energy companies like ConocoPhillips.”
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said Thursday that the bill “fell victim to a few folks who can’t even find the Flathead River on a map.”
“Politics trumped good policy, hurting Montana’s economy and our outdoor heritage in the process,” he said. “The American people deserve better.”