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After Time in Wilds, Babbitt Takes a New Approach to Battling GOP

By Tom Kenworthy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 3, 1995; Page A19

Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt is a happy warrior again. After spending much of his first two years in the Cabinet in a frustrating and losing fight with Congress over his plans to overhaul federal land policies, Babbitt has regained his voice and his footing as the Clinton administration's most outspoken critic of the Republican environmental agenda.

For more than half a year, the former Arizona governor has virtually disappeared from the Washington radar screen. But in contrast to 1993 and 1994, Babbitt is spending little time in interior western states. His earlier campaign for tougher controls on mining, livestock grazing, timber harvesting and agricultural irrigation -- much of it frustrated by Congress -- made him almost a pariah in parts of the West and something of a political liability in the region for the White House.

This time, on a tour that has had him on the road for more than 100 days this year, Babbitt has been visiting regions where he is more welcome -- the Northeast, Midwest, Southeast and West Coast -- speaking out against what he has called "the worst onslaught on public lands and the environment in this century."

He has canoed on San Francisco Bay and fished on the Great Lakes to highlight the successes of the Clean Water Act and to warn of a "systematic crusade" by congressional Republicans to undo environmental protections for waterways and wetlands. He has traveled to the district of House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) to protest what he said were GOP attempts to dismantle the National Park system. And he has met with the doctors of young cancer victims whose treatments depend on rare plant species, to underscore the value of the Endangered Species Act.

The new approach has put him more in tune with both the White House and the environmental community, where some conservationists soured on him during the first two years of the Clinton administration as Babbitt sought to forge compromises with western interests on such issues as grazing and mining. Faced with the need to fight GOP efforts to roll back environmental laws, activists have had to put aside their reservations about Babbitt.

"Having a very overwhelming, very serious threat and enemy sort of blurs a lot of detail differences," said Debbie Sease, legislative director for the Sierra Club.

Other administration officials also have spoken out against the GOP environmental agenda, but representatives of conservation groups said Babbitt has been particularly effective at getting people to listen.

"Secretary Babbitt has called the nation's attention to the slate of congressional proposals which would ravage our natural heritage," said Nicholas Lapham, a policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "I think his message has gotten through."

Babbitt's self-described "natural heritage tours" have yielded favorable news media coverage, including numerous editorials denouncing the GOP environmental program. That has helped bolster the White House's resolve to veto some of the legislation. And in what may be the truest test of his impact, Republicans have been scrambling to inoculate themselves against Babbitt's rhetorical attacks.

In October, for example, the House GOP leadership sent to Republican members a manual on how to "insulate yourself from the attacks of the green extremists." "Think of it this way," members were coached in a memo that misspelled Babbitt's name. "The next time Bruce Babbit comes to your district and canoes down a river as a media stunt to tell the press how anti-environment their congressman is, if reporters have been to your boss's adopt-a-highway cleanup, two of his tree plantings and his Congressional Task Force in Conservation hearings, they'll just laugh Babbit back to Washington."

Babbitt's calculatedly hyperbolic claim, repeated almost everywhere he goes, that Republicans are intent on selling off parts of the national park system, has been particularly effective. Although the legislation he denounced would create only a commission to study the question of whether some units of the sprawling system do not deserve federal park status, Babbitt has sometimes made it seem that the jewels of the National Park Service were already on the auction block.

In late June, for example, Babbitt kicked off a swing through Florida by fishing for bonefish on Biscayne Bay and accusing Republicans of planning a nefarious sell-off of the park system, including Biscayne National Park. "Biscayne is the kind of national park that many in Congress want to get rid of," he said.

Babbitt didn't catch any fish that day, but he did hook some pretty favorable news media attention. " Pssst, want to buy a national park?" began an editorial in the Miami Herald. "How does one countenance selling these national treasures? Ask the Republicans in Congress."

In late September, Babbitt rang the same alarms at the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area in Gingrich's Georgia district, warning that Republicans wanted to sell off national parks to "the highest bidder." Gingrich responded by accusing Babbitt of "crying wolf." Rep. James V. Hansen (R-Utah), an architect of the park commission legislation, said Babbitt was "blatantly prevaricating" about the bill. But GOP leaders eventually decided to take the park commission idea out of the massive budget reconciliation bill.

Babbitt's itinerary this year is hardly apolitical. Most of the states he has visited have two things in common: They are home to Republican members of Congress who are moderate on the environment, and they are critical to Clinton's reelection strategy.

How much those GOP members may have been influenced by Babbitt's high-profile campaign in their home states is impossible to judge, but moderate Republicans in the House increasingly are bucking their party on key environmental votes because, said Rep. Sherwood L. Boehlert (R-N.Y.) recently, they "are catching hell back home." Dozens have defied the leadership in opposing, on environmental grounds, bills funding the Department of Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency that contain riders undercutting protections for public lands and waterways.

"There's a quickening, and the polls are picking it up," said Babbitt in a recent interview. "These issues have gone from being inert to getting pretty hot."

One measure of their resonance with voters is that Clinton is now frequently citing his differences with the Republican-led Congress on key environmental issues. For the moment, he seems to share Babbitt's conviction that the environment presents a political opportunity in 1996 despite the administration's, and Babbitt's, continued unpopularity in the interior West.

Where there once was speculation that Babbitt was such a political liability that he might be moved out of the Interior secretary's job, that now seems unlikely. As the administration's chief critic of Republican environmental policies, Babbitt is more of an asset to Clinton in vote-rich states like New Jersey and California than he is a liability in regions like the Rocky Mountains, which Clinton is unlikely to win anyway.

The president, said senior White House adviser George Stephanopoulos, "couldn't be happier with the job he's doing."

Neither could Babbitt -- now. "1993 and 1994 were not fun years, either for this movement or for Bruce Babbitt," he said. But after seven months on the road bashing Republicans, Babbitt said, "it feels great."

Staff Writer John F. Harris contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post

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