"I'm a constitutional conservative," said Shuster, the chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure and the bill's sponsor along with Rahall. "I believe this is one of the few roles the federal government has, in the infrastructure of this country ... this is a federal responsibility."
Supporters also emphasized the bill's potential as an economic engine, though Shuster's committee could not provide an estimate on how many jobs its passage could create. Backers also assuaged conservatives by stressing the bill was free of earmarks, or projects for lawmakers' home districts, and by making changes that included accelerating the pace of required environmental reviews that have slowed some projects for years.
Another selling point was that it would shelve at least $12 billion in old, inactive projects.
The pitch worked.
Some of the most conservative members of the House not only voted for the measure, but spoke on its behalf. They included Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., who last week opposed a deal to end the government shutdown and raise the debt ceiling.
"Transportation is one of the few things Congress should actually spend money on," said Massie, who was elected in the tea party wave of 2010.
Business groups, led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, had pressured lawmakers to vote for the bill and highlighted its potential to create jobs. The chamber distributed state-by-state fact sheets and made the measure a "key vote" when it determines which lawmakers to support in next year's election.
The bill touches virtually every aspect of U.S. waterways. The legislation will allow work to advance on 23 shipping channel, flood management and other water projects that the Corps of Engineers has already studied, although actual money for the work will have to be provided in future legislation.