By JIM ABRAMS, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate on Wednesday put aside its partisan differences to extend the federal government's main water resources law, which promotes investment in port improvements, flood protection, dam and levee projects and environmental restoration.
The smooth passage of the Water Resources Development Act on a 83-14 vote was in sharp contrast to the last time Congress took up a WRDA bill in 2007, when President George W. Bush vetoed it and the Democratic-led Congress retaliated with the first veto override of the Bush presidency.
Unlike the 2007 bill, which was laden with hundreds of earmarks or special projects sought by individual lawmakers, this bill has no earmarks. But critics questioned approving any new water projects when the Army Corps of Engineers is already saddled with some $60 billion in projects it hasn't yet completed.
The newest version of WRDA met resistance from the Obama administration. While stopping short of a veto threat, the administration faulted the measure for speeding up environmental reviews, increasing federal obligations to projects and doing little to address the Army Corps' construction backlog. The bill, which now goes to the House, also was criticized by some environmental and fiscally conservative groups.
The legislation would sanction more than 20 new Corps projects, some aimed at making ports more accessible in line with 2015 completion of a widened Panama Canal. It would ensure that more money in the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, financed by user fees, actually goes to harbor improvements. It sets up a new program to promote levee safety and inland waterway projects, takes steps to expedite the environmental review process and sets up a commission to make recommendations on defunding old, uncompleted projects.
"We focus on flood control. We focus on ports and environmental restoration projects where the Corps has completed a comprehensive study," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee. She said it took a while to reach consensus on the bill because "we had to deal with changing the culture of the Senate away from earmarks."
The top Republican on the committee, David Vitter, a Louisiana conservative whose state is a main recipient of WRDA projects, said he and the liberal Boxer had been able to work together because of their agreement that water resource projects are jobs producers. "Ultimately that core, that theme, that common goal is what brought us effectively together."
The American Farm Bureau Federation noted that 95 percent of U.S. agriculture exports and imports move through U.S. harbors, supporting more than 400,000 jobs. "However, unless WRDA is approved, the inland waterway system is at risk of becoming a potential detriment to the nation rather than a comparative strength."
But fiscally conservative groups such as Taxpayers for Common Sense and Citizens Against Government Waste wrote senators that with the Corps already burdened by a $60 billion backlog in projects, "we cannot simply pile more projects on the to-do list."
"The plate has been full for over 25 years," said Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M. "Project authorizations far exceed the money to pay for them."
The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the new projects authorized by the legislation would cost more than $12 billion over the next decade if the funding is approved in the annual appropriations process and the projects are initiated.
A final obstacle to completing the bill was removed when Vitter and fellow Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat, were blocked in their effort to impose a five-year delay on premium rate increases on those who already have government-subsidized flood insurance. The rate increases were part of a law passed last year to make the National Flood Insurance Program fiscally solvent.
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