The Republican-controlled Senate yesterday emphatically rebuked Interior Secretary James G. Watt, voting 63 to 33 to place a moratorium on the leasing of federal coal reserves until a special commission and Congress can review his practices.
Nearly two dozen Republicans teamed up with most Democrats in reversing an earlier 51-to-48 vote by which the Senate refused to go along with the Democratic-controlled House in calling for a delay in further coal leasing.
The lopsided Senate vote, which came as a surprise even to Watt's opponents, followed the Interior Department's offer last week of leases on 540 million tons of coal in North Dakota in defiance of a House Interior Committee directive that the offering be delayed for environmental reasons.
In a brief but sharp debate, Sen. Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.), chief sponsor of the moratorium, accused Watt of "thumbing his nose at the House" and "trying to give away the national heritage to whoever happens to show up."
He said the moratorium was needed to prevent Watt from leasing roughly 10 billion tons of coal in the West next year under procedures that virtually amount to a give-away.
Sen. Alan J. Dixon (D-Ill.) agreed, saying the moratorium was needed "before Secretary Watt gives away billions more tons of coal at bargain-basement prices."
In a strongly worded response, Sen. James A. McClure (R-Idaho), who led the fight against Bumpers' proposal, said the charges against Watt's management of coal resources were "reckless." And McClure accused his colleague of being "out to get" the interior secretary.
Those who had been searching for a "smoking gun" have been disappointed, McClure said, adding that all the charges against Watt "have been laid to rest."
But environmentalist critics of Watt contended otherwise after the vote, which marked the first time the Senate has repudiated Watt and his policies in such a strong fashion.
"It's the first time the Senate has decisively put itself on record against Watt's giveaway policies," said Geoffrey Webb, legislative representative for Friends of the Earth.
In a statement after the vote, Watt said the Senate and House action "will not have a major impact on the Interior Department's coal-leasing program" and added: "Tomorrow's consumers will need the coal we are making available from the lands owned by all the people, and the leasing program will continue on whatever timetable is finally written into law."
Under Bumpers' amendment, the coal-leasing moratorium could last well into next year.
A special commission, already appointed by Watt, would have six months to submit a report on coal-leasing practices. Congress would then have 90 days to consider the findings and to take action, if it wants to. If no congressional action is taken, the moratorium would expire automatically after 90 days.
The House provision, approved last June, does not contain the 90-day waiting period. It requires affirmative congressional action to implement the report. Differences will have to be worked out in a House-Senate conference.
In both houses, the coal-leasing provisions are included in the Interior Department appropriations bill for fiscal 1984, which begins Oct. 1.
In other action on the bill late yesterday, the Senate voted 54 to 43 for an amendment to add roughly $1.6 billion to fill the Strategic Petroleum Reserve at a rate of 220,000 barrels a day and to finance a new storage facility for the reserve at Big Hill, Tex.
In the vote on coal leasing, Sens. Paul S. Sarbanes (D-Md.) and John W. Warner (R-Va.) voted for the moratorium, while Sen. Paul S. Trible Jr. (R-Va.) voted against it and Sen. Charles McC. Mathias Jr. (R-Md.) did not vote.