The Free Press, Mankato, MN

State, national news

December 27, 2013

For divided Congress, water projects are a unifier

WASHINGTON (AP) — Big multimillion-dollar water projects, once a favorite target of good-government reformers who made them a poster child of political pork, are back in vogue as a rare force of concord in a dysfunctional Congress.

Republicans and Democrats who found little common ground in 2013 are rallying around a bill they hope to pass early next year authorizing up to $12.5 billion over the next 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 houses' 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. Business groups, led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have lobbied members to support the bills, saying they'll help keep American businesses competitive.

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