Senate Democrats are proclaiming victory after they thwarted Idaho Sen. Larry Craig's bid to use a federal spending bill to dictate water flow for Northwest salmon.
A bill approved by Congress would remove an amendment inserted by the Republican senator directing the Bush administration to go forward with a policy on Columbia River Basin fish that a judge has twice ruled illegal.
Salmon advocates say Craig's amendment would have nullified the court ruling and forced officials to rely on a discredited policy that does not provide enough water to allow salmon to thrive and shifts the burden for recovery of the threatened fish to Oregon and Washington state.
"Endangered and threatened salmon and steelhead are vital to communities in the Northwest, and it is critical that we get the salmon protection plan right," said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., who led the effort to remove the Craig rider, which the Senate approved in June.
The amendment — supported by all four Idaho members of Congress — would have directed the Interior Department to implement "without further delay" a salmon recovery plan issued by the Bush administration in 2005.
A federal judge in Oregon ruled last year that the plan violated the Endangered Species Act because it did not do enough to promote recovery of threatened salmon.
The order was the second time that U.S. District Judge James Redden had overturned Bush administration salmon policy. Redden ordered federal officials to submit a new plan by March that would balance demands of dams and threatened or endangered fish runs in the Columbia and Snake rivers.
The previous plan remains in effect until then, Redden said, although he has warned that officials could face "harsh" consequences if he has to reject the salmon plan a third time.
"For over two years, local, state, federal and tribal authorities have worked in a court-ordered collaborative process to develop a plan to protect the Columbia and Snake River salmon plan," Cantwell said. "Working with Sen. (Dianne) Feinstein, we were able to ensure that independent judicial process is not undermined by congressional intervention."
Feinstein, D-Calif., could not be reached for comment Thursday, but her office confirmed that the salmon rider was removed from a massive spending bill approved this week by the House and Senate. President Bush is expected to sign the bill.
In a statement issued by the entire Idaho congressional delegation, Craig, fellow Republican Sen. Mike Crapo and GOP Reps. Mike Simpson and Bill Sali said the Bush administration's salmon policy still stands, despite Redden's ruling and warning.
"Three years ago, Congress approved the Snake River Basin Adjudication to resolve a decades-old dispute over the use of water in the Snake River," the statement said. "An agreement was reached to meet the various demands for the water, and it was one agreed to by a broad array of users, Congress and the president. The language we worked to insert into the omnibus appropriations bill was meant to reaffirm Congress's commitment to the law of the land."
"Regardless, the law still stands, and we hope that federal judges pay attention to that because it is our best hope to restore salmon and maintain our economy," the Idaho Republicans said.
Democrats and salmon advocates said the new spending bill would go a long way to protect and restore salmon and steelhead in the Columbia and Snake rivers. The two rivers span Idaho, Washington state, Oregon, Montana and Wyoming, as well as parts of Canada.