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Filibuster Broken, Senate OKs Calif. Desert Protection : Legislation: Millions of acres affected. Death Valley, Joshua Tree to be national parks; vast wilderness areas within them are created. Stormy 103rd Congress adjourns.


WASHINGTON — The Senate, breaking an impasse stretching back nearly a decade, voted Saturday to approve the California Desert Protection Act, creating two new national parks and carving out millions of acres of federally protected wilderness areas in Southern and eastern California.

The legislation, which for years was bogged down in a dispute between former California senators, was adopted handily--but only after its supporters broke a Republican filibuster that threatened to add the measure to the long list of legislation doomed by partisan discord in the final days of the 103rd Congress.

Hours after the vote, the Senate adjourned for the year. But like the House, which adjourned at 12:05 a.m. Saturday, the upper chamber will reconvene in seven weeks for a special session to consider a global trade measure.

The Clinton Administration and environmental groups described the desert bill, which now awaits the President's signature, as an epic triumph. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt called it "America's most significant environmental victory in more than a decade."

In a statement released by the White House, President Clinton called the bill's passage "a clear-cut victory for the people of California and everyone across America who cares about this nation's great natural heritage."

It was also a success for Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who vowed during her campaign two years ago to make the legislation a priority.

"This is something I ran to do," a beaming Feinstein said as she prepared to return to California to resume her tight reelection race against Rep. Mike Huffington (R-Santa Barbara.) "It was a promise I made in my campaign."

The bill designates 69 new Bureau of Land Management parcels totaling 3.5 million acres as wilderness, elevates the Death Valley and Joshua Tree national monuments to national parks--which affords greater protection--and creates 4 million more acres of wilderness in those parks and a new national preserve in the East Mojave.

Most of the land already belongs to the federal government.

The terrain is filled with ecological diversity, including several mountain ranges, huge sand dunes, some 2,000 plant and 600 animal species, more than 100,000 archeological sites and even dinosaur tracks.

Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, described the legislation as "the fruition of two decades of activism on behalf of desert protection."

For supporters, however, elation was preceded by some tense moments when, even after voting began on the Senate floor, key backers of the measure were nowhere in sight.

Several Democrats had been home campaigning and attempted to fly back to Washington in the nick of time--some aboard private charters hastily arranged by an unlikely travel agent.

In the wee hours of Saturday morning, Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.) could be seen in a cloakroom just off the Senate floor, carrying on conversations over two phones. On one, Mitchell had a senator who was campaigning in his home state; on the other was a private aircraft company. Mitchell was making arrangements.

Among those who returned with barely time to spare was Sen. Jim Sasser (D-Tenn.). He landed at National Airport in Washington only minutes before the vote to cut off the filibuster began.

Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun (D-Ill.) was even later, delayed by a mechanized garage door that would not open as she was leaving home.

When she finally burst into the Senate chamber, a broad grin on her face, a collective sigh of relief was heard from Democrats. Then Moseley-Braun and Feinstein happily embraced in the middle of the chamber as an insouciant clerk continued calling the roll.

The final vote to end debate was 68 to 23, eight votes more than needed. All 23 opponents were Republicans, though another 14 GOP senators broke ranks to join with the Democratic majority. Immediately afterward, the Senate gave the bill final approval on a voice vote.

Efforts to develop coherent California desert management policies date to the 1970s. Once the issue reached Congress in 1986, however, it became mired in disputes between two former California senators: Democrat Alan Cranston, who first introduced the legislation, and Republican Pete Wilson.

This year, with California's senators both Democrats, the measure seemed a shoo-in. The Senate approved its initial bill by a 69-29 vote and the House approved a somewhat different measure, 298 to 128. A conference report that reconciled the two versions was approved by the House on a voice vote Friday morning.

But Sen. Malcolm Wallop (R-Wyo.) and several other Western senators mounted a filibuster, hoping to kill the measure as time was running out on this Congress.

That prompted Feinstein and her allies to accuse the Republicans of seeking to deny her a legislative victory that she could tout in her reelection campaign. Just before the votes Saturday morning, for instance, Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.), labeled the GOP filibuster "raw politics."

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