For divided Congress, water infrastructure bills have power to unify

Leaders hope to merge Senate and House versions early in 2014

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WASHINGTON — Those occasionally infamous multimillion-dollar water projects that have been derided by good-government types over the years as Exhibit A of pork-barrel spending in Congress are making a comeback.

Republicans and Democrats who found little common ground in 2013 are rallying around a bill authorizing up to $12.5 billion over a decade for flood diversion in North Dakota, widening a Texas-Louisiana waterway, deepening Georgia's rapidly growing Port of Savannah and other projects.

That's the Senate bill's total. The House version would cost about $8.2 billion. Negotiators are confident they can merge the two and pass the package for President Barack Obama's signature early in 2014.

Unlike a farm policy/food stamp bill also the subject of ongoing House-Senate negotiations, the differences in the two chambers' water project bills are modest and the acrimony is less.

Negotiators say the roughly $4 billion gap between the two bills is more about how they are written than substantive policy or political differences.

"The important thing is that we all care about reform," said Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Shuster's Senate counterpart, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., has said much the same thing.

The last time Congress enacted a water projects bill was 2007, and it took two-thirds majorities in both houses to override President George W. Bush's veto of it.

Negotiators held their first formal meeting just before Thanksgiving on blending the two versions. Staff talks continued until Congress left for its year-end break and will resume in January.

Lawmakers have been drawn to the big investment in infrastructure sketched out in both bills — and the promise of jobs that entails.

Tea Party sympathizers in the House largely brushed off conservative critics, buying into the idea that this water projects bill represents both reform and needed investment. To wavering Republicans, Schuster cited Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution, which directs Congress to establish roads and regulate interstate commerce.

For their part, Democrats breezed past environmental groups concerned about language that speeds up the environmental review process for projects.

The House bill passed 417-3 in late October, winning support of everyone from Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi to Tea Party stalwarts like Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan. The Senate easily passed its version of the bill in May by a vote of 83-14.

Both bills accelerate environmental reviews and allow more money from the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund to be spent on harbor improvements, but the House version of the bill ramps up spending from the fund more slowly.

The legislation would affect virtually every facet of America's waterways and authorizes or reauthorizes dozens of projects, though Congress still has to pass separate bills appropriating money for them.

Among them:

• Dredging and widening the Sabine-Neches Waterway, billed as "America's Energy Gateway" because the nearly 80-mile waterway services many oil and natural gas refineries in Texas and Louisiana.

• $954 million for environmental restoration along the Louisiana coast.

• Expanding the Port of Savannah. Georgia officials have long lobbied for federal backing to improve one of the country's fastest growing ports; the bills designate up to $461 million for that purpose.

• Flood diversion for the flood-prone Red River Valley region of North Dakota and parts of Minnesota. The bills authorize spending of about $800 million to relieve flooding in a region that includes the cities of Fargo, N.D., and Moorhead, Minn. The region has suffered major floods in four of the past five years.

• Up to $43 million to reduce storm damage risks along the San Clemente, Calif., shoreline.

The bills would shelve about $12 billion in old, inactive projects that had been approved in water resources bills prior to 2007.