WASHINGTON – An election-year dispute over whether to allow loaded guns in national parks is holding up a vote on a massive bill affecting public lands from coast to coast.
Democrats accuse Republicans of trying to score political points by injecting a "wedge" issue like gun rights into a noncontroversial bill.
Republicans counter that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is trying to protect the two leading Democratic candidates for president by shielding them from a politically difficult vote on an issue that many rural voters consider crucial.
Arizona Sen. John McCain, the leading Republican contender for president, is a co-sponsor of the amendment, which would allow gun owners to carry loaded, accessible firearms into national parks and wildlife refuges. Current regulations ban gun owners from carrying easy-to-reach firearms onto lands managed by the National Park Service and Fish and Wildlife Service.
Spokesmen for the two leading Democratic presidential contenders, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, declined repeated requests to comment.
The gun amendment is sponsored by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., a longtime gun-rights advocate who has endorsed McCain. A spokesman for Coburn accused Reid, D-Nev., of bad faith in refusing to allow a vote on the issue, despite an earlier agreement between the two senators.
Reid "is going to go against his word because he wants to protect Hillary Clinton from a tough vote rather than protect the Second Amendment rights of all Americans," said Coburn spokesman Don Tatro.
Reid spokesman Jon Summers called that absurd.
"You take tough votes in the Senate regularly," he said, accusing Coburn of "a transparent attempt to stop the bipartisan package" of relatively non-controversial land measures.
The bill combines nearly 60 separate proposals to expand wilderness protection in several Western states and establish the Abraham Lincoln National Heritage Area in Illinois and Niagara Falls Heritage Area in New York state, among dozens of provisions. Coburn considers the bill bloated and expensive and has blocked it for months.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., whose measure to create a 100,000 acre wilderness protected area outside Seattle is among those being blocked, called the dispute disheartening.
"It's sad that individual political interests are working to hold up an effort that is broadly bipartisan and so obviously in the public interest," Murray said. "Surely we can all agree that creating wilderness land for future generations should not be held hostage by ideology or political gamesmanship."
The fight over guns comes as nearly half the Senate is pushing the Bush administration to let gun owners carry firearms into national parks and wildlife refuges.
Forty-seven senators have signed a letter asking Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne to lift the Reagan-era restrictions requiring park visitors to render their weapons inaccessible. Guns do not have to be disassembled, but they must be put somewhere that is not easily reached, such as in a car trunk, said Jerry Case, the National Park Service's chief of regulations and special park uses.
Thirty-nine Republicans and eight Democrats signed the letter seeking to overturn the regulations, which were approved in the early 1980s by then-Interior Secretary James Watt.
Coburn's amendment would take that a step further and write into law a requirement that guns cannot be restricted in national parks. "Unloaded and disassembled guns locked in your trunk are of no use when a rapist is attacking your family," Tatro said.
But a coalition of park rangers and park service retirees say the amendment could jeopardize public safety and make it more difficult to stop poaching.
"There is simply no legitimate or substantive reason for a thoughtful sportsman or gun owner to carry a loaded gun in a national park unless that park permits hunting," the groups said in a statement.
The conflict over the amendment has caused bruised feelings on both sides.
"A lot of things are done in the Senate on agreement, and for people to go back on their word would really be detrimental to the body as a whole," said Tatro.
Bill Wicker, a spokesman for Democrats on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, agreed -- but he blamed Republicans for the rift.
Wicker and other Democrats say Reid blocked a vote on the gun amendment because it is not related to the underlying bill. They also accuse Coburn of bad faith, saying he never raised the gun issue during months of debate on the land measure. Instead Coburn, a fiscal conservative, blasted the bill's cost.
"All of his concerns were about spending," said Wicker.
In an effort to move the bill, Reid agreed to allow Coburn to call five amendments to be debated on the Senate floor. But when Coburn included the gun measure in his list of amendments, Reid withdrew the measure.
No timetable for a vote on the bill has been set, Wicker said.