By Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The fine print of a massive $1.1 trillion spending bill before the United States Congress includes a passage considered a "high priority" by lawmakers that could resolve a burning issue among the country's 40 million anglers: does the federal government need to regulate fishing tackle?
The unexpected provision buried in the 1,603-page bill tracks back - as so much legislation does in Washington - to an influential lobbying group, the National Rifle Association.
The NRA, which represents American gun owners and sportsmen, wants to stop the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from regulating the lead content of both fishing tackle and firearms ammunition.
Conservationists have long clamored for a crackdown, partly due to concerns about lead in drinking water, but the debate has outraged some hunters and fishermen.
Republicans in the House of Representatives this week used the spending bill to try to block federal interference.
"It was a House priority," said one Republican aide familiar with the provision in a bill that the Senate weighed in a rare weekend session.
An NRA publication called the efforts to regulate lead in ammunition and fishing gear "hysteria." The powerful gun rights group also contends the regulation is not backed by sound science.
The Republican-run House Appropriations Committee touts the provision as protecting Americans' constitutional right to bear arms by fending off a government assault on ammunition as well as tackle.
The American Sportfishing Association advanced a practical argument against Washington's meddling: "Non-lead fishing tackle products can cost from ten to 20 times more than lead products. Non-lead products may not be as available and most do not perform as well."
Dale Denney, whose company Bearpaw Outfitters runs guided hunting and fishing trips in Western states, said the legislation counters "an overreaction in wanting to ban lead."
The emotion runs almost as deep as anger from opponents of energy-saving light bulbs now crowding out old-fashioned incandescent bulbs. Republicans also addressed this in the budget bill by banning the Obama administration's "onerous light bulb standard."
The federal law passed in 2007 does not ban incandescent light bulbs, but it does require them to be made more energy-efficient in a phased process through 2020.
Meanwhile, anglers and hunters watched intently as Congress fought over whether to fund continued government operations and programs ranging from space exploration to soybean supports.
City slickers like Democratic Senator Charles Schumer, who grew up in Brooklyn, are tracking the legislation as well.
"One of my great trips is to go for small-mouth bass in Lake Ontario every summer," Schumer observed, deftly deflecting the fight over getting the lead out.
(Additional reporting by Eric M. Johnson in Seattle; editing by Marilyn Thompson and G Crosse)