House approves $12 billion-plus bill authorizing 34 water projects

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WASHINGTON — The House passed the closest thing so far this year to an infrastructure bill — a $12 billion-plus bipartisan measure authorizing 34 water projects, ranging from flood protection in California and North Dakota to deepening the Port of Savannah and widening a Texas-Louisiana waterway that services the oil industry.

The Water Resources Reform and Development Act passed Tuesday on a 412-4 vote. Lawmakers shook off criticism from conservative and watchdog groups like Heritage Action and Taxpayers for Common Sense that argued the bill should have done more to rein in wasteful government spending.

The Senate could vote on the bill before the end of the week, sending it to President Barack Obama for his signature. The legislation is a bipartisan compromise of companion bills passed separately by the House and Senate last year. After months of negotiations, a final deal on it was reached last week.

Supporters, including business interests like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce hailed, it an economy-boosting measure that could deliver thousands of new jobs.

With an estimated cost of $12.3 billion, the measure is a slimmer version of past water project bills. The last one in 2007, for example, had a price tag of $23.3 billion.

Congress is expected to consider another key infrastructure bill before the end of the year. A Senate panel last week approved a bill to shore up federal highway programs in time to stop a disruption in in federal transportation aid to states this summer.

Besides authorizing specific water projects, Tuesday’s bill makes changes to how future projects are to seek funding. It sets specific time and cost limits for studies on potential projects, eliminates duplicative Army Corps of Engineers reviews and speeds up environmental reviews.

The bill also increases spending from the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund to pay for improvements to ports and creates a five-year pilot program to provide loans and loan guarantees for various projects.