Senate sends $12.3B water projects bill to Obama’s desk

The Senate on Thursday voted 91-7 to pass a $12.3 billion bill that approves infrastructure projects and aims to boost U.S. ports and waterways.

The majority of Republicans voted with Democrats to advance the measure, which was held to a 60-vote threshold for passage.

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“This is a strong bipartisan bill,” said Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), who helped author the legislation. “It’s a jobs bill that is very much needed in our weak economy. It’s what we need to do more of.”

Senate passage sends H.R. 3080, the Water Resources Reform and Development Act (WRRDA), conference report to President Obama’s desk for his signature. The House voted 412-4 for the report earlier this week.

It took conferees nearly a year to finish work on the bipartisan, bicameral deal since the Senate passed its version of the bill last May in a 83-14 vote.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who was a lead sponsor of the bill, said passage was long overdue. The last water resources bill was passed in 2007.

“This is a bill that rises above partisan politics,” Boxer said ahead of the vote. “I am glad that we will consider it expeditiously so we can quickly send it to the president for signature.” 

The measure identifies more than $12 billion worth of new water infrastructure projects and authorizes funding for them, though appropriations committees have the authority to dole out the funds.

The House and Senate initially took different approaches to identifying projects that would receive congressional funding, leading to lengthy negotiations between the chambers. 

The Senate's initial version of the measure relied on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to make the water project selections, but Republicans in the House argued that doing so would delegate too much responsibility for federal spending away from Congress.

But some Republicans still weren’t satisfied, saying although earmarks aren’t included in the bill the process for approving projects is still flawed.

“I do have many concerns about the bill. My chief concern is the process by which infrastructure projects will be authorized,” Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) said. “Simply put, just because it doesn’t have earmarks doesn’t mean it will be a good process for the taxpayers.”

Flake said the process relies on states being “judicious” in what they ask the Army Corp of Engineers to construct. He predicted this would lead to a “virtual tsunami” of requests. Congress will have the authority to cancel projects, but Flake said that kind of oversight seems unlikely.

“It will require members of Congress to ultimately be willing to cross projects off a list to prevent taxpayer dollars from going to them,” Flake said. “I think we can all be realistic about the chances of that happening.”

Among the projects identified for funding in the final water bill agreement are long-sought projects to deepen ports in Jacksonville, Fla.; Savannah, Ga.; and Boston. Transportation advocates have warned that U.S. ports need to be expanded to handle larger ships that are expected to come through the Panama Canal after the Central American channel is deepened next year.