How Two Birds Prevent Congress From Funding the Military

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The contentious fight to prevent two birds from being listed on the endangered species list is preventing Congress from passing the military’s budget for the second year in a row.

The House’s version of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2017 prohibits two bird species, the greater sage grouse and the lesser prairie chicken, from being listed as endangered species. The Senate’s version does not have that provision, and while the two chambers can agree on most other parts of the bill, the deadlock probably means Congress will have to wait for the lame duck session to pass the budget.

“I think it’s pretty obvious that we’re going to have to go to lame duck,” Senator John McCain, chairman of the Senate Committee on Armed Services, told reporters earlier this week. “Sage grouse! It’s the major impediment. It’s terribly frustrating.”

Apparently, issues like how many Littoral Combat Ships the Navy should order and how much money should go into the Pentagon’s war readiness fund — sometimes called the military’s slush fund — have mostly been cleaned up. (RELATED: Pentagon Skimmed $147 BILLION Off War Readiness Fund For Basic Operations)

“We’ve thrown out a couple of compromise options — it’s up to the Senate to take them,” Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah, member of the House Armed Services Committee, told Politico Thursday.

How did the sage grouse, which lives in 11 states across the West, become the biggest sticking point for an important piece of legislation?

Republicans like Utah Reps. Bishop and Jason Chaffetz have opposed listing the sage grouse as an endangered species for years, despite its gradual population decline from 16 million to between 200,000 and 500,000. The two claim that listing the bird as endangered would counteract local and state conservation efforts and harm small businesses.

Bishop successfully delayed the listing of the bird in 2014, in another last-minute December budget bill to fund homeland security. Under that provision, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service could not list the birds as endangered until the end of the fiscal year, or after September 30, 2015.

During the budget discussions the following spring, Bishop put an amendment prohibiting the listing of the sage grouse as endangered in the National Defense Authorization Act for the 2016 fiscal year. That provision didn’t survive until the final budget passed.

When the window for listing the sage grouse as endangered approached last September, U.S. Fish and Wildlife declined to list the sage grouse and lesser prairie chicken on the endangered species list. The sage grouse did not need to be protected under the Endangered Species Act “thanks to unprecedented conservation cooperation across the western United States,” Sally Jewell, secretary of the Department of the Interior said in a White House blog post last September.

Bishop was not impressed by the Obama administration’s decision. “This announcement changes nothing,” he said after the announcement last year. “It was an act of fundamental dishonesty.”

“Large tracts of military test and training ranges will be off-limits if the Administration has its way,” Bishop wrote, which is why placing an amendment about the sage grouse fit in the NDAA. (RELATED: Pentagon Shells Out $2 Million Grant To Preserve Greater Sage-Grouse)

While the sage grouse is not endangered, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service released an expansive conservation guidance earlier this month that would restrict grazing permits, oil drilling and other uses of public land.

The overarching need to fund the military and the rest of the government may push the sage grouse issue aside later this year. But even if Congress does pass the NDAA, President Barack Obama may veto it over the sage grouse language.

As an Arizona senator who represents part of the sage grouse’s natural habitat, McCain is not sure if the NDAA would have enough Democratic support to overturn the president’s veto with the sage grouse provision. “The major issue, obviously, is sage grouse, which the House people are insisting on including, and the interesting thing is, if it were included, the president would veto, and I’m not sure we could override a veto,” McCain said.

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