By MARY CLARE JALONICKAssociated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) - Congress is back in town after the election to find a way around automatic tax increases and spending cuts in January. But first, lawmakers are dealing with 41 polar bear carcasses.
In its first roll call since September, the Senate voted 92-5 on Tuesday to debate a bill to ease restrictions on hunters and fishermen and allow 41 U.S. hunters to bring home polar bear carcasses trapped in Canada due to a ban on trophy imports.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., immediately moved to block Republicans from amending the bill, potentially stalling further action on the bill for days.
Republicans had blocked the bill before the election, fearing that passage would boost the re-election prospects of the bill's Democratic sponsor, Montana Sen. Jon Tester. Tester ultimately won re-election, narrowly defeating Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg.
The idea was that the bill would pass easily postelection. Reid said it was "one of the most popular bills" the Senate had considered in the last session.
"I just can't imagine why we're still trying to refight an election that took place a week ago," he said.
Tester's bill combines 19 measures favorable to outdoorsmen. In addition to dealing with the polar bear hides, it would allow more hunting and fishing on federal lands, let bow hunters cross federal land where hunting isn't allowed, encourage federal land agencies to cooperate with state and local authorities to maintain shooting ranges, exclude ammunition and tackle from federal environmental laws that regulate lead, boost fish populations and protect animal habitat. A similar bill passed in the House earlier this year.
The polar bear provision would allow the 41 hunters - two are from Tester's home state- who killed polar bears in Canada just before a 2008 ban on polar bear trophy imports took effect to bring the bears' bodies across the border. The hunters involved were not able to bring the trophies home before the Fish and Wildlife Services listed them as a threatened species.
The bill has bipartisan support and is backed by the National Rifle Association and the National Wildlife Federation. The White House said Tuesday that the Obama administration also supports the bill.
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