Stevens Holds Line On Steller Deal

Senator says he'll keep Congress in session until sea lion rider is approved

By David Whitney, Daily News Washington Bureau
(Published December 15, 2000)

Washington -- Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens worked into the night Thursday on an apparently elusive deal with the Clinton administration on legislation to insulate the huge pollock and cod fishery from further cutbacks to protect the endangered Steller sea lion.

The disagreement was the only remaining obstacle as Congress attempted to finish its business and adjourn for the remainder of the year.

By late Thursday, Stevens, the Republican chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, was prepared to move ahead with a legislative rider, without a clear assurance that Clinton would not veto a package of spending bills for seven departments of the federal government and Congress.

"They're going to try to stonewall us right up to tomorrow," Stevens said Thursday night. "We've made every concession. That's as far as we're going to go."

Earlier in the day, in a fiery speech on the Senate floor during which he pounded the lectern so hard the microphone was dislodged, Stevens said he was ready to keep Congress in session indefinitely until he wins relief for Alaska fishermen whose livelihoods are at stake in the sea lion controversy.

Unless the spending packaging included the provision he wanted, Stevens shouted, "it's not going to be approved by the senator."

With Congress desperate to adjourn its lame-duck session by the weekend, Stevens' opposition alone would be enough to block the unanimous consent needed for the Senate to act on the omnibus measure.

The appropriations bills, already two months late for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1, total more than $175 billion in spending for the departments of State, Commerce, Justice, Labor, Education, Health and Human Services, and Treasury, as well as legislative operations.

Throughout the afternoon and into the evening, Stevens' staff members met again and again with administration negotiators, only to report they were receiving no counteroffers from the White House.

At issue is Stevens' insistence that harsh mitigation measures in a new biological opinion on the status of the dwindling sea lion population, recently completed by the National Marine Fisheries Service, not be permitted to take effect next year.

In essence, Stevens believes the opinion is factually wrong and that it would have a disastrous impact on Alaska coastal communities whose economies depend on the pollock and cod fishery.

The restrictions include little or no fishing near sea lion rookeries and haulouts between Prince William Sound and the western Aleutians, as well as in huge sea lion foraging zones.

The Clinton administration, with barely a month left in office, is resisting any step that will look like retreat on the Endangered Species Act.

Stevens' compromise tries to steer the White House away from its dilemma over the Endangered Species Act by treating the pollock issue as if it were any other fishery issue under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.

The rider would require that the controversial biological opinion be vetted through the North Pacific Fishery Management Council before any money could be spent to implement its call for additional restrictions on fishing.

Such a move is certain to result in massive revisions of the opinion's recommendations. In meetings of the advisory council last weekend, the opinion was repudiated by fishermen, processors, the council and its scientific committee.

Working with Stevens were lobbyists for coastal communities and the Pacific Seafood Processors Association, whose members run shore-based plants to process the fish.

Lobbyist Brad Gilman said that if the restrictions are in effect next year, roughly half of the $1 billion fishing economy would be lost.

"Seventy percent of the economy in Southwest Alaska will disappear," said Gilman, whose clients include the East Aleutian Borough, Kodiak and Unalaska.

"The burden will fall heaviest on Native villagers," he said. "The impact will be catastrophic."

Environmentalists issued a joint statement Thursday urging the White House to stay firm in the face of Stevens' determination.

"Even with new conservation measures to help sea lions, this fishing industry in Alaska will still make more than $1 billion next year," said Heather Weiner, senior legislative counsel for Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund. "If Stevens really cared about his coastal communities, he would accept the White House's offers of compromise language."

As the negotiations reached a fevered pitch Thursday, the White House again offered to trade cash for the rider Stevens was seeking. But Stevens has refused to take a $75 million offer of aid for fishermen, though some $20 million or more in research and other funds for the sea lions remained in play.

The $175 billion spending package awaiting Senate action also includes numerous items for Alaska, including legislation to curb cruise ship waste discharges negotiated by Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, and tens of millions of dollars in programs Stevens wrote into the bills.

The Stevens money includes $8.5 million in disaster assistance for Western Alaska salmon fishermen, $15 million for alcohol control programs administered by the Alaska Federation of Natives, and $7 million for the Alaska Railroad.

Other provisions authorize a $3 billion annual early childhood education program that Stevens sponsored with Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and another Stevens initiative to reintroduce physical education in public schools.

The measures also are expected to include a provision by Murkowksi that would extend for five years a Medicaid clause worth nearly $40 million to the state because of its high medical costs.